‘Spiderman’ and two others found guilty in Paris art heist
An agile thief nicknamed “Spiderman,” an antiques dealer and an art expert were sentenced to prison Monday and ordered to pay Paris for stealing five masterpieces from the city’s Modern Art Museum worth 104 million euros (US$110 million.)
The paintings — by Picasso, Matisse, Modigliani, Braque and Fernand Leger — have not been seen since the dramatic 2010 heist.
The Paris court convicted “Spiderman” Vjeran Tomic of stealing the paintings and sentenced him to eight years in prison. Jean-Michel Corvez, the antiques dealer who orchestrated the theft, was sentenced to seven years.
Yonathan Birn, who stored the paintings and told the court he destroyed them out of fear of getting caught, screamed at the judge who sentenced him to six years in prison.
His lawyer, Caroline Toby, called Birn’s sentence “particularly severe.”
The court also jointly fined the men an eye-popping 104 million euros for the loss of the paintings, but the verdict did not detail how they might go about raising even a fraction of the fine.
Birn, a 40-year-old expert and dealer in luxury watches, previously told the court he threw the masterpieces in the trash and “made the worst mistake of my existence.”
Investigators think the paintings were smuggled out of France, although they were not able to prove that, court documents showed. Birn’s co-defendants testified he was “too smart” to destroy the masterpieces.
Tomic, a thief with 14 previous convictions, said before sentencing that he got a buzz from the May 20, 2010, overnight break-in. He took advantage of failures in the security, alarm and video-surveillance systems to move around the high-ceilinged museum near the Eiffel Tower.
“It’s quite spectacular. There is an adrenaline rush the moment you enter the space,” he said. “The sounds resonate from one side to the other.”
Authorities found climbing gear at his home: gloves, ropes, climbing shoes and suction cups. He removed the glass from a bay window without breaking it and cut the padlock of the metal grid behind it, allowing him to move from one room to another without raising the security alarm.
Tomic was there to steal a painting by Fernand Leger and possibly a Modigliani ordered by Corvez, the 61-year-old antiques dealer who confessed to being a receiver of stolen goods. Tomic said when he came across the Picasso, the Matisse and the Braque paintings, he decided to take them as well.
Several hours after the headline-making burglary, Tomic said he offered the five paintings to Corvez, who said he was “totally stunned” by them.
Corvez said he initially gave Tomic a plastic bag containing 40,000 euros (US$43,000) in small denominations just for the Leger, because he was unsure he would get buyers for the other paintings.
Corvez then became worried about keeping the artworks in his shop after several months and showed them to his friend Birn, who agreed to buy the Modigliani for 80,000 euros (US$86,000) and to store the others in his studio. The Modigliani was hidden in a bank safe, he said.
Birn said he panicked when police began investigating. He says one day in May 2011 he retrieved the Modigliani from the safe, returned to his workshop to break the stretcher bars on all the canvasses with fierce kicks and then threw them all into the building’s trash.