'Spiderman' art thief stole €100m of masterpieces from Paris museum with 'disconcerting ease', court told

Tomic broke into the Musée d'Art Moderne opposite the Eiffel Tower in May 2010. Photo / Getty Images
Tomic broke into the Musée d'Art Moderne opposite the Eiffel Tower in May 2010. Photo / Getty Images

An art thief had all the climbing skills of Spiderman, a French court was told on Monday.

Yet he needed none of them to walk off with more than €100 million worth of masterpieces - including a Matisse, Picasso and Modigliani - from a Paris museum with "disconcerting ease".

An alleged accomplice has claimed he later threw the lot into a rubbish bin in a moment of panic.

Vjeran Tomic, 49, whose Spiderman nickname stems from his ability to scale buildings to rob apartments, was accused of stealing five paintings after he broke into the Musee d'Art Moderne opposite the Eiffel Tower in May 2010, in what has been described as one of the biggest painting thefts in recent years.

But in an ironic twist, all Tomic had to do was break one pane of glass and a puny padlock to carry out his daring heist, a special Paris court for serious financial crimes was told.

Presiding judge Peimane Ghalez-Marzban lamented the "disconcerting ease" in which the athletic thief evaded "defective" security to steal the "priceless" mastepieces whose value "far surpasses their market value".

Paris city hall put the total value of the haul at €100m but some experts said they were worth twice that amount.

Three guards were on duty inside the sprawling museum on the night of the theft but due to a faulty alarm system the thief was able to move around freely without them noticing the thief. The guards said they had switched off the alarms two months previously, and informed their superiors, as they kept going off at the slightest movement.

During questioning, Tomic, who has 14 previous convictions, told police he had initially broken into the museum only to steal a Fernand Leger work - the 1922 painting titled Still Life with Candlestick - but once inside was "surprised" when the burglary alarm failed to sound.

Being a "veritable art lover," he told them he then wandered around for another hour, eluding 30 closed circuit cameras that were so bad that individuals were unrecognisable to cherry pick four other masterpieces.

He and took Picasso's Dove with Green Peas (painted in 1911), Pastoral by Henri Matisse (1906), Olive Tree near l'Estaque by Georges Braque (1906), and Woman with Fan by Amedeo Modigliani (1919) before finally making his escape.

Before entering court, he asked reporters, "Who am I? Arsène Lupin", referring to the legendary French master thief.

Tomic was arrested in May 2011 after an anonymous tip to the police about a tall, athletic individual hanging around the museum in the days leading up to the heist. Police said he quickly confessed to the theft but refused to give the name of the person who ordered it.

Two other men are accused of receiving the stolen paintings.

Jean-Michel Corvez, an antiques dealer, is accused of ordering at least one of the works, the Leger in exchange for €40,000 for Mr Tomic, who told investigators the order was from a "Moroccan or Saudi" collector, but that he had got carried away and taken five works.

A third defendant, Yonathan Birn, a rare watch dealer and repairer, is accused of hiding the five works.

During questioning Birn broke down in tears, claiming he had thrown the lot in the bin out of panic.

"I'm crying because it's monstrous what I've done, he told the investigating judge according to the indictment. "I was overcome with panic. I lost all reason and decided to take the paintings out of my workplace and from a safe," he told the judge.

"I thought I was being followed by the police, convinced I was being filmed or spied on. I told myself that I couldn't get out of the building with the paintings and committed the irreparable," he said.

Investigators say that claim is improbable and believe that the works, which also include works were sold to a collector - perhaps in Israel, which Birn visited.

Tomic faces 20 years in prison and the other two defendants 10 years.

The trial continues.

This article was originally published by the Daily Telegraph UK

- Daily Telegraph UK

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