A visitor takes in "Woman With a Fan" by Modigliani in New York… (Don Emmert / AFP/Getty Images )
Reporting from Paris — A man suspected of hiding precious artwork stolen from the Paris Museum of Modern Art last year claims that in a panic, he threw the paintings into the garbage.
Picasso, Braque, Modigliani, Matisse and Leger paintings stolen in May 2010, and worth about $134 million, may have been dumped in a garbage bin on a Paris street and destroyed with the rest of that day's trash, according to testimony by one of three suspects connected to the theft. The suspect, a 34-year-old watch repairman, was identified only as Jonathan B. by the French weekly Le Journal du Dimanche. The paper broke the detailed story on the investigation Sunday.
The other suspects include a 56-year-old antique shop owner, who is accused of commissioning the break-in, and a 43-year-old Serb with the nickname "Spiderman," for allegedly scaling the walls of upscale Paris apartment buildings in search of pricey artwork and other valuables.
The Serb is suspected of making off with the five paintings in the early morning of May 20, 2010. According to the Journal report, he said after being detained by police that once inside the museum he intended to take only one painting, by Fernand Leger, "Still Life With Candlestick." But the museum's alarm didn't sound when the art was removed from the wall, so he wandered around the national museum for more than an hour, helping himself to four more masterpieces, before driving away in a car parked nearby. Despite several security cameras, three night watchmen didn't notice the masked intruder.
The incident spurred French museums to reevaluate their security systems, amid an uproar after the revelation that the alarm had been out of order for more than a month before the theft.
The case started to crack when the Serb and the antique shop owner were detained by France's special police bandit brigade in May in connection with other suspected crimes. The Associated Press reported that a third suspect, Jonathan B., was also questioned, but later released.
After that brush with authorities he reportedly panicked and trashed the irreplaceable works of art, Picasso's "Dove With Green Peas," Matisse's "Pastoral," Braque's "The Olive Tree Near Estaque," Modigliani's "Woman With a Fan" and the Leger still life.
The shop owner denies ordering the theft but reportedly admitted that the stolen works were delivered to him, and that he gave them to Jonathan B., whom French reports describe as an expert Parisian watch repairman.
The three were questioned and then arrested in mid-September in connection with the museum theft. Investigators are not ruling out the possibility that the paintings may still be recovered.
Lauter is a special correspondent.