A burglar known as “Spider-Man”, notorious for daring acrobatic heists, went on trial on Monday for the 2010 theft of a €100m haul that included works by Picasso and Matisse from a Paris gallery.
Vjeran Tomic, 49, who is facing 14 charges, arrived in a blue overcoat and sweatshirt for his trial alongside two accomplices in Paris where he faces up to 20 years in jail if convicted of the robbery.
The three were charged over the May 2010 robbery at the Modern Art Museum of five paintings by Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Ferdinand Leger and Amedeo Modigliani.
A thief cut through a padlocked gate and broke a window to get into the gallery, one of the most-visited museums in Paris on the leafy banks of the Seine.
Tomic admitted to carrying out the heist after his arrest in 2011 and on Monday compared himself to a famed thief from French literature as he spoke to reporters.
“What role did I have? Arsene Lupin,” he told reporters with a smile, referring to the sly but charming character who ransacked rich Parisians’ homes.
Three guards were on duty that night, but the paintings were only found to be missing from their frames just as the museum prepared to open to the public the next day.
The museum’s alarms had been awaiting repair for several weeks and the thief somehow managed to knock out a security camera.
When police arrested the Serb in May 2011, Tomic told them he had initially broken into the museum for Leger’s “Still Life with Candlestick” from 1922, not thinking he would also be able to steal another four.
Besides the Leger canvas, the other works stolen were Picasso’s cubist “Dove with Green Peas” from 1912 – worth an estimated €25m ($26.8 million) alone – French contemporary Matisse’s “Pastoral” from 1905, Braque’s “Olive Tree near Estaque” from 1906, and Modigliani’s “Woman with a Fan” from 1919.
All but the Modigliani were hung in the same room in the museum, located in the well-heeled 16th district of Paris, which is run by the city and is home to more than 8,000 works of 20th-century art.
Tomic said he took them all because he “liked” the paintings.
Authorities put the total value of the haul at €100m ($107 million), but some experts said they were worth twice that, while admitting it would be totally impossible to sell them on the open market.
The presiding judge at the trial yesterday, Peimane Ghaleh-Marzban, said the value of the masterworks was “far higher than their market value.” They have still not been recovered.
The defendants face a 10-year jail term if convicted for the theft or re-sale of the artworks, but Tomic’s sentence could be double that given his criminal record.
French police arrested Tomic after receiving an anonymous tip. Surveillance cameras from the night of the heist recorded only one person entering through a window but the person could not be identified.
Tomic, an athletic 1.90m (6 foot 2) rock climbing enthusiast, earned his nickname for clambering into posh Parisian apartments and museums alike, to steal valuable gems and works of art.
Authorities said he was spotted by a homeless man as he roamed around the museum in the days leading to the theft.
And they say Tomic’s mobile phone or that of one of his accomplices showed a signal coming from that area during the heist.
They trailed the signal to a Paris metro station then to a car park in the city centre. Authorities believe that is where he may have sold the paintings to a first dealer.
A second dealer claimed he held on to the paintings for a short time before he dumped them in a garbage can, which authorities do not believe.
International police body Interpol put out an alert to its 188 member countries in the hope of recovering the five paintings, but so far they all remain missing.
There has been a spate of art thefts in Europe in recent years.
The most recent, in 2015, involved the theft of five paintings worth €25m by renowned British artist Francis Bacon in Madrid.
Spanish police arrested seven people last year suspected of being involved in the theft.