Culture – Spider-Man And One of The Biggest Art Heists Ever

In an art theft fit for a Sherlock Holmes story, five works of art—valued at €100 million and often described as priceless—were stolen from Paris Musée d’Art Moderne in 2010.

The thief, later nicknamed “the spider-man”, eluded security systems and dozing security guards. Works by Picasso, Léger, Braque, Matisse, and Modigliani were carefully removed from their frames and vanished into the night. Now, six years later, the acrobatic burglar and his two accomplices are on trial. And the works, nowhere to be found, may very well be in a garbage dump – destroyed, forever.


In the early morning on May 20, 2010, a 42-year-old burglar named Vjeran Tomic loosened the screws of a window frame of the Palais de Tokyo, which sits along the Seine not far from the Eiffel Tower and houses the Musée d’Art Moderne. This is where Tomic, whose acrobatic exploits during his numerous burglaries led him to his superhero nickname, knew he would find his original target: Nature Morte aux Chandeliers – a 1922 painting by renowned French painter Fernand Léger.
Just five years before the break in, the institution had upgraded its security system as part of a €15 million refurbishment, and Tomic would later tell police he was “surprised” that no alarms went off as he took the Léger out of its frame. As chance would have it, the museum’s security systems had been awaiting repair for several weeks. So, as any “veritable art lover” would, Tomic decided to have a look around.

Nature Morte aux Chandeliers – a 1922 painting by renowned French painter Fernand Léger.


Moving through several galleries, evading security cameras, he plucked four more pieces before exiting the museum. Among those additional pieces taken: Le Pigeon aux Petits Pois by Pablo Picasso, valued at €23 million; La Pastorale by Henri Matisse, put somewhere in the region of €15 million; L’Olivier Près de l’Estaque by Georges Braque; and La Femme à l’Éventail by Amedeo Modigliani. Three guards were on duty that morning. About an hour after sunrise, as they were preparing to open the museum, they noticed the empty frames and alerted police. They had seen and heard nothing.L’Olivier Près de l’Estaque by Georges Braque

The impact of the theft was a mix of shock, threats, and awe. Alice Farren-Bradley, then of the Art Loss Register in London, called it “one of the biggest art heists ever, considering the estimated value, the prominence of the artists and the high profile of the museum.” Sure, it was clear that the burglar knew what he was doing, but it was less clear at the time that he knew what he would do next. International police would be on high alert, keeping an eye out for the works. Plus, the pieces could never be sold on the open market or shown to law-abiding collectors who would likely recognize and report the paintings given their notoriety.

La Femme à l’Éventail by Amedeo Modigliani
In fact, it took police more than a year to arrest all three of the theft’s perpetrators, with Tomic and his two accomplices—the antiques dealer Corvez and watchmaker Yonathan Birn—now standing trial in Paris. Absent, however, are the works themselves. If Birn is to believed, the pieces are gone, destroyed by a garbage truck. The last to be arrested, Birn said he panicked when the other two were picked up by police and dumped the priceless pieces.

The investigating judge is skeptical that Birn threw the pieces away. So are the co-defendants, who testified that Birn was simply “too smart” to simply discard the priceless works of art. Tomic himself wants to know where the objects are, saying that “these are my artworks.”

Even though real mystery remains over the fate of the works, authorities believe they have a solid case against Tomic and his accomplices. Tomic is charged with stealing cultural property and with his record faces 20 years in prison if convicted. His alleged accomplices face 10-year sentences if convicted on charges receiving stolen goods.

As for the goods themselves – time will tell if we ever see them again…