It was one of the most highly mediatized art burglaries of the decade. In 2010, five paintings disappeared from the Musée d’art moderne de la Ville de Paris – and not just any paintings. They were all by of modern heavyweights, that is, Picasso, Matisse, Braque, Modigliani, and Léger. The haul is believed to be worth an estimated €100 million. The figure was calculated at the time and is thought to be well below the real market value, given the artists’ current rating.

The paintings have not been seen since, either on the market or in storage, and, despite considerable investigations, their fate remains a mystery. The only thing that is known is that the thief is a 40-something man called Vréjan Tomic, who is the perpetrator of a number of spectacular thefts. The trial opened in Paris on Monday. Two fences, Jean-Michel Corvez and Yonathan Birn, are also being trialled for receiving the stolen works.

The thief, who is known as “spiderman”, acted on behalf of a man who wanted to acquire Fernand Léger’s Nature morte au chandelier, which was on display in the Musée d’art moderne de la Ville de Paris. Tomic is an old hand when it comes to daring burglaries. In one of his previous coups, he climbed seven stories of a Parisian apartment building to steal jewellery. He accepted the commission and got to work on Avenue du Président Wilson in the 16th arrondissement of Paris during the night of 20 May 2010, after removing the window of one of the permanent galleries.

Flaws in security at the Parisian museums

“Spiderman” stole the painting by Fernand Léger, as planned, then, finding no alarms interrupting the peace, he decided to uplift a further four masterpieces hanging in other galleries – Picasso’s Le Pigeon aux petits pois, Braque’s L’Olivier près de l’Estaque, Modigliani’s La Femme à l’éventail, and La Pastorale by Henri Matisse. The choice of paintings was a matter of personal taste. At 4.30 a.m., the stealthy art lover left and the night watchmen did not notice the theft for another hour. In May 2011, Vréjan Tomic was arrested. The affair caused a huge scandal, highlighting as it did flaws in security at the Parisian museums.

The paintings have not been seen since, Tomic supposedly handed them over in a car park the next morning, to Jean-Michel Corvez, who paid €40,000 for the Fernand Léger. Yonathan Birn, a dealer specializing in luxury watches, is said to have paid Corvez €80,000 for the Modigliani, which he deposited in a bank vault, hiding the others. Birn confessed that he panicked when he realized the extent of the affair, which had spawned a number of searches, and given the impossibility of selling the treasure. He says he defaced the paintings and threw them into the bin. Investigators are not terribly convinced by Birn’s version of the events and think that the paintings have most likely left the country. Tomic and Corvet have also expressed their doubts about their accomplice’s story. The fences face up to 10 years in prison while Vréjan Tomic’s sentence could be up to 20 years.

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