August 5, 2021

Ten years after their flight, a Picasso and a Mondrian found in a forest in Greece

Lhe mystery will have lasted nearly ten years. The Greek authorities announced on Tuesday June 29 that they had recovered a painting by Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) and another by Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) which had been stolen from the National Gallery of Athens in 2012. The works were found – intact – in the ravine of a forest about forty-five kilometers southeast of the Greek capital.

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In this case, the nerves of the museum’s curators were strained to the end: the painting by the Spanish master Pablo Picasso, entitled Head of a woman (56 × 40 cm, 1939), accidentally fell to the ground during the presentation press conference… A man rushed to pick it up and put it back in place, without however putting on gloves.

The heist was not carried out by a team of professional burglars, but by a 49-year-old Greek mason. The latter was arrested and confessed to being the author of the theft. He was remanded in custody. It is not known how the police got to him. The burglary was originally attributed to two people, but police said the mason likely had no accomplices.

Many comments leaked to the local press and the suspect’s lawyer, Mr.e Sakis Kehagioglu, confirmed much of the information leaked by Greek media, report it New York Times. The man, whose identity remains unknown, reportedly told police that he regretted “Deeply” his act, which he described as “Biggest mistake of [sa] life “. The mason would also have claimed to be an art enthusiast and never intended to sell the paintings. Nevertheless, according to Dutch and Italian art historians quoted by Greek media, sales attempts would have taken place.

According to the Greek Minister of Culture, Lina Mendoni, Picasso’s canvas would have been anyway « impossible » for sale due to the artist’s handwritten inscription mentioning on the back of the painting: “For the Greek people homage to Picasso”. The artist had offered this painting to Greece in 1949 to salute its resistance against Nazism during the occupation of 1941-1944. The other stolen painting is the Moulin (35 × 44 cm, 1905), By Dutch painter Piet Mondrian, one of the pioneers of abstraction.

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The burglary lasted seven minutes

After confessing, the suspect led the police into the forest where the webs were hidden in a briefcase. According to local media, the man moved the paintings to this location in May after reading in the press that police may be on a trail. Before that, he had kept the paintings with a relative who he visited frequently to admire them.

A third work was stolen in 2012: a drawing on paper by the Italian artist Guglielmo Caccia known as “Il Moncalvo” (1568-1625), representing the ecstasy of a saint. But the drawing, damaged during the flight, was discarded, according to the suspect.

The burglary, which lasted barely seven minutes, had been prepared for a long time. In the six months before the theft, the man had visited the National Gallery of Athens more than fifty times to study the premises, the behavior of the guards as well as the location of the windows and cameras. “I knew all the habits of the guards, the moment when the teams changed, who smoked, who went out in the garden”, told the mason during his hearing, adding:

“And that’s how I decided to do the heist. (…) I didn’t know what work I was going to take, just that I wanted one. “

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D-day is chosen at random. On January 8, 2012, dressed in black and equipped with a few tools – a hammer, a chisel and a knife – the man waited for the museum to close, at 9 p.m., before entering through a balcony whose doors are not secure.

An obsolete security system

A report from the Greek authorities subsequently established that the museum’s security system, installed in 1992, had not benefited from any improvement since 2000. The then interior minister had mentioned protections “Non-existent”. Several areas of the museum were out of range of the cameras and the batteries for the alarms, either missing or worn out, regularly caused the bells to sound untimely. In addition, the museum was understaffed at the time of the theft due to a staff strike.

When he inadvertently triggers an alarm by opening a door, the thief decides to change his plan: he will voluntarily sound the alarm several times, but without entering the building, to deceive the vigilance of the guards. “It was the best way to commit the theft, by making the guards believe that there was a technical problem with the alarms”, the suspect told police. Finally, around 4 o’clock, after slipping and crawling from room to room, he arrives in the gallery.

His account suggests that he stumbled upon his booty almost by accident: “I got up and found myself in front of Picasso’s painting”, he claimed, adding that he simply removed it from the wall and then from its frame before doing the same with the Mondrian and the Caccia. Spotted, he is then chased by a guard but manages to escape. In his escape, he abandoned another work by Mondrian that he had subtilized. A simple and daring robbery that could cost the perpetrator up to ten years in prison.

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