The French Burglar Who Pulled Off His Generation’s Biggest Art Heist

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(Source: newyorker.com )
Long before the burglar Vjeran Tomic became the talk of Paris, he honed his skills in a graveyard. Père Lachaise, the city’s largest cemetery, is a Gothic maze of tombstones, in the Twentieth Arrondissement, that covers more than a hundred acres. Frédéric Chopin, Marcel Proust, and Oscar Wilde are among those buried there. Tomic recalled that in the nineteen-eighties, when he was an adolescent, the cemetery attracted hippie tourists, who flocked to the grave of Jim Morrison, and also drug dealers and gang members. Tomic was drawn by the tombstones. In one of twenty letters, written in careful cursive French, that he sent me during the past year and a half, he told me, “Observing them gave me the desire to touch them—to climb up to their peaks.” Tomic and his friends turned the cemetery into a parkour playground, leaping from the roof of one mausoleum to the next, daring one another to take ever-bolder risks.
Tomic avoided his family’s apartment, which was a few blocks south of the cemetery, because he had a tense relationship with his parents, both of whom were Bosnian immigrants. He was born in Paris in 1968, but the following year his mother became seriously ill, and his father, a car mechanic, sent Vjeran to live with his grandmother, in the Ottoman town of Mostar, in Bosnia. By the age of six, he told me, he had developed what he calls “a devious tendency,” adding, “I was showing some unhealthy intelligence.” He tormented his cousins by putting thorns in their shoes. They often played along the banks of the Neretva River, and Tomic became adept at scaling Mostar’s stone bridges; on reaching the top, he would leap into the water below.
At the age of ten, Tomic pulled off his first heist. He broke into a library in Mostar, climbing through a window that was nearly ten feet above street level. He stole two books, each of which appeared to be several hundred years old. (The older brother of a friend learned of the theft and returned Tomic’s plunder.) Tomic said of his early criminal adventures, “It was intuitive. Nobody ever taught me anything.”
He returned to Paris when he was eleven, speaking almost no French and barely knowing his parents. He resented them for uprooting him from Bosnia. In his words, his mother and father “lived in the apocalypse,” fighting constantly.
Despite the turmoil at home, Tomic said, he did well in school, and was a fine athlete. As a teen-ager, he developed a keen interest in drawing, and in his spare time he walked, alone, through the streets of Paris. One day, when he was sixteen, he was strolling through the Jardin des Tuileries when he noticed people lining up outside what appeared to be a greenhouse. It was the Musée de l’Orangerie, a structure that was built, in 1852, to shelter orange trees, and which now houses Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art. Tomic went inside. The museum is best known for its Monet murals of water lilies, but Tomic was enraptured by Renoir’s glowing renderings of happy childhoods: kids playing with figurines , practicing the piano , snuggling with mothers . As Tomic saw it, Renoir had used his paintbrush to create a “parallel universe”—an enchanted version of the grim Parisian life he had known. “Renoir has a way of seeing life from a magical realm,” Tomic wrote to me. “It’s as if he even came from this place.” It thrilled him to be “within a hand’s reach” of such spellbinding images.
On returning home, Tomic recalled, he told his mother about his transporting experience at the museum, and said that he wanted to paint—“that it was my passion, that other jobs weren’t worth anything, that they were wastes of time.” Fearing his father’s opinion, he entrusted her to “transmit the message” to him. His father soon approached him and declared that painting was a hobby, not a real job. He pressed Tomic to work at his garage, but Tomic resisted, and eventually “thought about fleeing.”
Tomic and his friends had begun hanging out at Père Lachaise, and when they found an abandoned warehouse nearby they began squatting there. Tomic went to school only intermittently, and he and the other boys supported themselves by stealing pieces of glassware from a local factory and then selling them at a flea market by the Porte de Montreuil. They also began climbing the high walls on the periphery of the cemetery, which allowed them to break into adjoining apartment buildings.
In time, Tomic began robbing apartments in more affluent neighborhoods. His climbing skills continued to improve, and by the age of sixteen he could scale the façade of a multistory building with relative ease. In his letters to me, Tomic described his burglaries in oddly mystical terms, suggesting that his actions were compelled by invisible forces. (He used the French word tractent, which means “towed.”) He described canvassing neighborhoods before choosing his target: “I have to be in harmony with certain places, where I feel good. And then, at that moment, I see—like images from a movie—the places where I have walked in the past week, and some places attract me, and something is waiting for me in the end.”
One night, he had a vivid dream in which he stole five paintings from a museum. He took it as a portent. As he wrote to me, “I knew that someday I would do something great.”
Tomic generally worked alone, scaling walls, leaping between rooftops, and picking locks. Once inside an apartment, he looked first for jewelry, because it was valuable and easy to sell. A burglary that took less than two hours often yielded enough cash to support him for six months on the French Riviera. In his letters, he recounted robbing various Parisian luminaries, including the French-Caribbean singer Henri Salvador and the Egyptian royal family. (He boasted to me that he stole “gold buttons” and some of “Lawrence of Arabia’s medals” from the Egyptians.)
Tomic often returned to an apartment many times without taking anything, in order to find the most expensive-looking items. He adopted this strategy when robbing the apartment of the designer Philippe Starck, in 2004. Starck recently told me, “I never knew anything about my burglar, but I’ve always had respect for his style—an admiration for his temerity—and a sort of intimate affection for him after I discovered that he’d been practically living with us in the apartment for a few days, spending his time sawing into my poor, small safety box without even disturbing us. It was very much a Gentleman Burglar situation, Arsène Lupin style.” (Lupin, the quintessential debonair thief, was invented by the French novelist Maurice Leblanc, in 1905.) Starck went on, “The only shadow was that the only thing he stole was my daughter’s jewelry—her only heritage from her deceased mother.”
Tomic’s confidence as a burglar grew to the point that he felt “indestructible and invulnerable.” Once, while fleeing the police across the rooftops of Paris, he took refuge in an empty apartment in a fashionable building. He decided to take whatever jewelry he could find; suddenly, the owner came home. “I saw that he was an old man with a very sexy girl,” Tomic wrote. He hid in a closet in the bathroom adjoining the man’s bedroom. “I couldn’t get out of it without crossing the room,” he recalled. “The couple . . . began making love, and that went on all night!” He waited until they finally fell asleep, then made his escape. “I have taken many risks like this one, and sometimes much worse ones,” Tomic wrote to me. “But I always perform well when faced with these sorts of obstacles.”
Tomic was exaggerating—his impulsiveness sometimes led him to make poor choices. One day, he ran out of gas while driving through the suburbs of Paris, and discovered that he’d left his wallet at home. “I had a toy handgun on me,” he recalled, and so he held up a bakery for two hundred francs. He filled his tank, but a witness at the bakery reported his license-plate number to the police, and he was arrested. He spent a year in jail.
Starck may be excessively romantic in calling Tomic a Gentleman Burglar. Tomic, who is tall and blunt-featured, with close-cropped dark hair, has been convicted of at least a dozen crimes—among them selling drugs, aggravated robbery, theft with violence, issuing a death threat, and illegal possession of a weapon. A friend of Tomic’s described him as “brutal and a little wild.” At the same time, she said, he had a charming range of passions: “He is into aesthetics, classical music, nature, animals, epicurean pleasures—wine, cheese. He is very out there in his style, even his clothing.” (Tomic favors G-Star pants, New Balance sneakers, cashmere ski hats, and Lacoste underwear.) She said that Tomic was “like a poet,” noting that “he talks about the moon.” He had maintained his habit of wandering around Paris on foot, modelling himself on Arthur Rimbaud.
Above all, Tomic loved fine art. His friend told me that he appreciated Matisse for “his joyful and dancing color palette,” Klimt for “his sensuality,” and Renoir for “the sweetness that emerges from his portraits of children.” She observed, “The Impressionist art feeds the poetry that is in him.”
Many of the luxurious apartments that Tomic broke into had valuable paintings, but he tried to resist taking them, knowing that they would be difficult to unload. “To sell them was dangerous, and I didn’t have reliable sources abroad in order to flog them to collectors or receivers,” he told me. Occasionally, though, the allure of the art proved overwhelming, and Tomic took what he found—including, he says, works by Degas and Signac. “A decent amount passed through my home,” he wrote. He hid some pieces in a cellar, “and some stayed with me for a long time, on the wall, and it’s in these cases that I fell in love.”
This might sound like braggadocio, but Tomic did make off with some masterpieces. In the fall of 2000, in an episode that subsequently made the papers in France, he used a crossbow with ropes and carabiners to sneak into an apartment while its occupants were asleep and stole two Renoirs, a Derain, an Utrillo, a Braque, and various other works—a haul worth more than a million euros.
In May, 2010, Tomic was walking near the Seine when he came upon a large Art Deco building. Looking through a window, he noticed a Cubist painting hanging on the wall. Tomic later learned that the building was the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, known as the MAM. But it was the style of the window, rather than the Cubist painting, that caught Tomic’s interest. He glanced up: there were cameras on the roof. Tomic walked up to one of the building’s other windows, which was blocked from the security cameras by a parapet. Studying the window’s metal frame, he became convinced that it was the same type that, years earlier, he had disassembled, screw by screw, in a heist. He took out a pocket knife, chipped away at the paint on the frame, and examined the screws that were embedded in the metal. He could easily break in, he decided. It astounded him that nobody had considered this vulnerability. “This made me realize that luck and my past experience were at a rendezvous,” he wrote. “I even asked myself if I was not in another dimension at that time.”
A few days later, Tomic went to the MAM as a visitor. It occupies the east wing of the Palais de Tokyo, which was built for the International Exposition of 1937. The museum started amassing its collection in 1953, when the city of Paris donated more than five hundred paintings once owned by a man named Maurice Girardin; Janet Flanner, writing in this magazine, later described Girardin as “an eccentric Paris dentist who had little money but such a gift for scenting talent among still unappreciated important artists that he had been able, starting in 1913, to buy their paintings at the low prices he could afford.”
Tomic looked around the galleries with a mixture of pleasure and unease. “Certain paintings can provoke me like an emotional shock,” he told me. A friend of his compared him to a “shaman,” and added, “A work of art emits a vibration, a palpable energy, and Vjeran is able to connect to it.” When I asked Tomic about this assessment, he agreed, observing, “I love to touch antique objects, and I sense a great past—of generations and generations—that I think are a part of the works.” He said that he avoided thinking about art in scholarly terms, and noted, “Sincerely, I have never read a single work about painting or art in my entire life.”
Inside the museum, Tomic noticed that although the motion detectors were meant to flicker from green to red whenever anyone passed by, several of them appeared to be stuck on green. The discovery delighted Tomic, who has described robbery as, ultimately, an act of imagination. He wrote to me, “I sometimes think for a while, then as if by magic—but without the magic wand—I have the formula to overcome an obstacle.”
In the 1962 film “Dr. No,” James Bond, played by Sean Connery , passes through the lair of a wealthy villain and notices a portrait of the Duke of Wellington, by Goya, on the wall. The painting had been stolen, the previous year, from the National Gallery in London. The scene helped to cement a popular misconception that stolen masterpieces are often bought and secretly held by wealthy, reclusive collectors. In fact, this almost never happens. Unlike jewelry, which can be recut, or antiquities, which may never have been photographed, famous paintings are almost impossible to resell—even at ten per cent of their value, a common rate on the black market. Some criminals try to collect ransom for museum paintings based on their insurance value, but that’s a risky proposition, particularly given that many publicly owned works aren’t insured. Charles Hill, a former head of the art-and-antiques squad at New Scotland Yard, told me that most museum thieves nevertheless “go for the big-ticket items,” adding, “It’s foolhardy, it’s stupid, it’s pig-shit ignorant.”
The typical art thief has no idea who will buy his loot. But, by the time Tomic began thinking about robbing the MAM, he had established a steady business relationship with a sponsor: Jean Michel Corvez, a white-haired man in his fifties who owned several businesses in France, including a health-care-data company and a small gallery in the Bastille neighborhood. Tomic told me that he met Corvez in 2004, through another thief. “Our relationship was more than fine, although it wasn’t quite a friendship,” he wrote to me. “We believed in each other, and he wasn’t evil—but I later realized that he was dangerous and that he was unable to predict danger.”
According to Tomic, in the span of several years he sold Corvez roughly ninety thousand euros’ worth of contraband, including jewelry, gold, and a painting by Johan Jongkind, a Dutch seascape artist. Knowing that Tomic frequently broke into rich people’s apartments, Corvez gave him a list of artists favored by his clients, among them Basquiat, Chagall, Klimt, Léger, Modigliani, Monet, Pissarro, and Warhol . Corvez gave Tomic the nickname l’Araignée—the Spider—and urged him to remain in good shape. He often chastised Tomic for eating poorly, Tomic recalled, adding, “Corvez wanted me to work out, so that I could climb without any problem.”
Soon after visiting the MAM, Tomic went to see Corvez at his gallery. Corvez reminded him that he would love to have a Léger, and one of the paintings at the museum was Léger’s “ Still Life with Candlestick ,” a depiction of a domestic interior, from 1922. When the painting had last been on loan to another museum, it had been insured for four million euros, and its market price was likely much higher than that. Corvez offered Tomic forty thousand dollars. “I hesitated,” Tomic told me. “But my mouth spoke, and then I couldn’t help but act.” He spent the next several days making plans for the robbery.
On May 14, 2010, in the early hours of the morning, Tomic walked up to a window that faced an esplanade where skateboarders congregated during the day. At around 3 A.M., he saw a guard briefly patrol the galleries, then walk off. Tomic was carrying a piece of dark cloth, and he hung it like a curtain on the outside of the window, to give himself cover. Then he got to work on the window. It took him six nights to finish the job. First, he dabbed the window frame with paint-stripping acid, exposing the head of each screw. Then, after applying another solution, to eliminate rust, he removed the screws and filled the holes with brown modelling clay that matched the color of the window frame. It was a painstaking process, and Tomic didn’t rush.
A few hours before dawn on May 20th, Tomic returned to the site, in a hooded sweatshirt, with two suction cups, and silently pulled out the window. There was a lock holding a grate in place; using bolt cutters, he broke the lock. He entered the museum briefly, avoiding the few working motion detectors. Then he left and retreated to the banks of the Seine, where he waited for fifteen minutes, to insure that he hadn’t set off a silent alarm.
When Tomic went back inside, he spotted the Léger painting, took it off the wall, and maneuvered it out of its frame. He now had an object Corvez prized, but, standing in the museum in the dim light and the silence, he began staring at Matisse’s “ Pastoral .” A Fauvist canvas from 1905, it depicts three pale nudes resting while a fourth figure, rendered in bronze tones, plays a flute. “I saw a deep, vivid landscape,” he recalled. “And the little devil playing his flute out of nowhere, as if by magic, as if he were the guardian of this environment.” He took it off the wall.
Then he noticed Modigliani’s “ Woman with a Fan ,” a portrait of the artist’s muse and obsession, Lunia Czechowska. Tomic fixated on the image, which depicted Czechowska in a yellow dress, her eyes a cloudy white. “The woman in the picture was worthy of a living being, ready to dance a tango,” he wrote to me. “It could have almost been reality.” He stole the Modigliani, too.
“They’re bred to stare all day.”
Hill described Tomic’s state of mind in the gallery as a kind of mania. “The paradox of great paintings is that they are inanimate objects that have lives of their own,” he said. “And they tend to mesmerize those who look at them. For some viewers, they then take leave of their senses.” Tomic, he said, was in some ways little different from “the buyer at a Sotheby’s auction who gets carried away and ends up bidding ten times what he intended to pay.”
Tomic kept moving through the galleries, taking down “ Pigeon with Peas ,” by Picasso, and “ Olive Tree Near l’Estaque ,” by Braque. He almost stole a sixth: Modigliani’s “ Woman with Blue Eyes .” But, Tomic recalled, “when I went to get it off the wall, it told me, ‘If you take me, you will regret it the rest of your life.’ I will never forget what this ‘Woman with Blue Eyes’ did to me. When I touched it, to take it out of its frame . . . the feeling started instantly—a fear that came over me like an iceberg, a freezing fear that made me run away.”
It took two trips for Tomic to carry the canvases out of the museum. He had parked his Renault a few minutes away, along the Avenue de New York. He sat in the driver’s seat for five minutes. As a professional thief, Tomic knew that it was reckless to linger at a crime scene, but he continued to equivocate about the Modigliani that he hadn’t taken.
Tomic headed back, but within a minute reality set in: the streets of Paris were deserted, and he was quite possibly the only person within blocks of a recently burglarized museum. He fled the scene again, though his regret lingered. “When I drove, the blue-eyed lady was in my head,” Tomic told me.
Tomic had planned to meet with Corvez later that morning, on the fourth level of an underground parking garage in Bastille. He spent much of the intervening hours gazing at the paintings in his car, especially the Matisse. “I had fallen in love,” he recalled to me. When Corvez arrived at the garage, in a rented Porsche Cayenne, and realized that Tomic had not one but five stolen paintings, he was more unnerved than pleased. “He was afraid of me,” Tomic recalled. Nevertheless, Corvez accepted the Léger, as agreed, and also took the Modigliani, on consignment. Tomic didn’t want to part with the three other paintings, and asked Corvez to store them on his behalf, even though he worried about what might happen to the Matisse. He recalled saying to Corvez, “You could get hit by a car—whose door will I knock on to recover my goods?” The mood turned tense. “We were not far from thinking that all could end badly,” Tomic wrote.
By the end of the day, newspapers around the world were reporting on the heist. The stolen works were estimated to be worth more than seventy million dollars, making the theft the biggest of its kind since 1990, when two thieves, disguised as police officers, stole thirteen art works, collectively valued at roughly half a billion dollars, from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, in Boston. (They have yet to be recovered.)
The mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë, declared, “I want everything to be done to recover these masterpieces.” France’s élite armed-robbery unit, the Brigade de Répression du Banditisme, launched an investigation and soon found a witness: Goran Radosavuevic, a skateboarder. He told police that, a few days before the robbery, he’d seen a suspicious character on the esplanade outside the museum: a white man, six feet two, weighing about two hundred pounds, with a muscular build, an oval face, and a square jaw. He observed, “I really got the impression that he was at work. He was not there to look at the skaters and seemed really to be observing the side of the wall with the windows of the museum.” Police records noted that the removed window screws had been laid out neatly in a corner of the museum, underlining the “cold-bloodedness” of the operation. The five paintings were among the most important in the museum’s collection, suggesting to investigators that the thief had “a sophisticated knowledge of the works”—or, at least, a good eye.
After the robbery, Tomic went to meet Corvez at the gallery to collect his payment. Tomic was deeply worried, even paranoid, that police officers were following him. “I knew that a great hunt was going to start,” he wrote me. Corvez gave him a shoebox stuffed with forty thousand euros, in small bills. Tomic left and hailed a taxi. He told me that he didn’t dare take the Métro, because he feared the security cameras. As the taxi navigated the twisting streets of Bastille, the radio buzzed with news of the heist. Tomic eventually arrived at the apartment of a woman he trusted. He taped his stash to the underside of a chair. Fearing that he would be discovered at his own apartment, he asked to spend the night.
Tomic initially characterized this woman to me as an “acquaintance,” but in a subsequent letter he explained that she was a sex worker who gave him “free passes” from time to time. She was not his “concubine,” he assured me; they were confidants who helped each other out. The woman, an immigrant, had experienced “problems with other girls” working the same territory and, according to Tomic, had spent time in jail. Tomic had agreed to keep an eye on her as she reclaimed a spot on her old corner, on Avenue Foch. One evening, she brought him home, fed him, and let him stay overnight. It became an occasional ritual.
Tomic, by his own admission, is not suited to intimacy: “I am a thief. I roam in beautiful neighborhoods. I see what I have to do, but I stay out of people’s private lives.” This woman, however, grew close to him, he said, adding, “She asked me to do her favors a few times, like to fix her car, change a tire.” Tomic never fully let his guard down, though. Most of his arrests occurred when someone betrayed him, and Tomic sometimes wondered if she was a police informant.
Six months after the MAM robbery, the police had only a few leads in the case, but they were conducting a separate investigation, based on an anonymous tip about a thief and his fence, and the informant provided Tomic’s name. On October 1, 2010, they eavesdropped on a phone conversation in which Tomic ranted, “The cops! The fucking cops think it was me who did the museum, I swear! . . . They’re assholes, it’s crazy! They can’t understand that the paintings were sold and that they’re pissing me off!”
The police compared a photograph of Tomic with the description given by the skateboarder, and concluded that they had a likely match. On December 7th, they followed Tomic to the Centre Georges Pompidou, which houses one of the largest modern-art museums in Europe, and observed him studying the emergency exits. A day later, they surveilled him as he bought two suction cups, glue, and a pair of construction gloves. In a letter, Tomic told me that he had indeed been intending to rob the Pompidou but had intuited that the authorities were on his trail. “It was definitely a project that would need to wait its turn,” he told me.
On December 10th, detectives phoned Tomic and the call was sent to voice mail. His greeting was astonishingly brazen, as if he were in a manic state. “If you want to buy paintings or works of art, or exceptional jewelry, do not hesitate to contact me,” he said. “Among the many paintings, there are five that are extremely expensive.”
It’s not clear why Tomic wasn’t immediately arrested. Charles Hill told me that he found it hard to contain his frustration at the inaction of the French police, which he attributed to smug complacency—a feeling, common to those investigating art thefts, that the work will ultimately be recovered. (In fact, several experts told me, only about ten per cent of stolen art ever resurfaces.) But Derek Fincham, a professor at South Texas College of Law, who specializes in the illicit trade in cultural property, suggested a potential justification for the delay: the French police might not have wanted to spook Tomic and “inadvertently push the paintings further underground.” Fincham explained, “A painting that is cut from its frame and rolled up is easy to move. It could be put in a bank vault or buried in a field, or even destroyed.” Such fears are warranted. In 2001, when the police arrested Stéphane Breitwieser—a French thief who stole two hundred and thirty-nine works of art from more than a hundred museums and galleries—his mother shredded many of the paintings and ground them up in a garbage disposal.
On the wiretap, Tomic had promised to get revenge on anyone who followed him too closely. He said, “I’m gonna dig up the guns and, on my mother’s head, you’ll see—the first one who comes near me will get a bullet in the head.”
As the months passed, Tomic grew increasingly suspicious of Corvez. He tried calling him, but discovered that his number was no longer in service. One day, they ran into each other at the Gare de Lyon. Corvez looked “totally white” and “freaky,” Tomic recalled, as if he were “going to pass out,” and stalled when Tomic asked him about the status of the paintings. “He gave me no guarantees,” Tomic told me. “It was fishy, ​​fishy, ​​fishy.”
Tomic surreptitiously taped a subsequent conversation with Corvez, in order to have proof of his involvement in the crime. On the recording, Tomic asks him about the Léger, and Corvez tells him that it has already been sold, and that the police investigation “prevents me from sleeping at night.” In fact, as Tomic eventually learned, Corvez still had the Léger. A client had paid him eighty thousand euros for it and taken it home. Two days later, apparently rattled by the media attention surrounding the theft, he returned the painting to Corvez, without asking for his money back.
Corvez did find a buyer for the Modigliani: Yonathan Birn, a thirty-three-year-old watchmaker with an art-history degree from the Sorbonne. Birn had a small shop in the Marais. Several months after the theft, Corvez showed Birn the Modigliani, which he described as “extraordinary” but “of dubious origin.” Birn was delighted by the portrait, and eventually agreed to buy it from Corvez. It is unclear if Birn understood that the Modigliani had been stolen from the MAM, but he handled the painting with great secrecy, persuading an employee at a Crédit du Nord bank to let him place it, off the books, in a safety-deposit vault.
Corvez eventually made arrangements to store the four other paintings at the shop where Birn sold and repaired his watches, which had a sophisticated alarm system. Birn and Corvez hid the canvases behind an armoire.
“If you feel the heart-pounding rush of first love, call your doctor.”
Selling the four paintings would not be easy, but Corvez and Birn seem to have been aware of at least one promising possibility. Historically, resellers had taken advantage of a legal concept, dating back to medieval England, known as “market overt.” The idea is that, if an object is sold during daylight hours, in a venue of open commerce, then its provenance cannot be questioned—the rationale being that, if the object had been stolen, its rightful owner could claim it before sundown. Derek Fincham, the law professor, told me that “the law is based on the need for market expediency,” because “courts don’t want to be tasked with examining and undoing all of these deals.” The law remained in effect in England until fairly recently. In 1990, thieves stole two paintings, one by Joshua Reynolds and one by Thomas Gainsborough, from Lincoln’s Inn, a barristers’ chambers in London. The paintings, worth millions of dollars, turned up at a flea market, where they were sold, to unsuspecting buyers, for the equivalent of a few hundred dollars. Afterward, there was a public outcry, and the Council for the Prevention of Art Theft, a British organization, led a successful effort to abolish market overt.
One of the countries that still adhere to the principle of market overt is Israel. “I would be very shocked if an Israeli court upheld the purchase of art clearly stolen from a museum,” Fincham said. “Still, the possibility might have been enough to tempt a buyer to test the court on this matter.” In late December, 2010, as the French police were closing in on Tomic, Birn flew to Tel Aviv. He called Corvez. Police officers monitoring Corvez’s phone line recorded an exchange suggesting that he and Birn were arranging a sale.
“I had the first meeting,” Birn can be heard saying. “I believe ninety-nine per cent we’re gonna pass through this.”
“Better than before!” Corvez responds.
Corvez shared little information with Tomic. At one point, he told him that he’d lined up a Saudi buyer, but later said that the Saudi had backed out, and that the solution to their problem lay in Israel. Tomic recalled Corvez saying, cryptically, “There’s a Russian Jew who is capable of taking the paintings.”
By the spring of 2011, the French police still hadn’t made any arrests. That May, an anonymous source told investigators that Corvez was still in possession of the missing paintings. The source warned that Corvez was interested only in making money, and might destroy the paintings if he came under extreme pressure.
In conversations with Tomic, Corvez grew increasingly agitated. Tomic recorded one of them, and in it Corvez declared, “I would have preferred that you didn’t bring me these things, because I don’t know what to do with them anymore. I am sick of it!” He also said that, if anything serious happened to him, a third party would call Tomic and help him “recover the paintings.” This hardly reassured Tomic, who suspected that the third party was no more than a “ghost.”
Tomic was now in dire need of money. He had been holding on to a small diamond, and he pawned it to Corvez for four hundred euros. The inevitable next step was another robbery. One night, while climbing the façade of an apartment building, Tomic noticed what he thought might be a valuable oil painting near a window, but he couldn’t entice Corvez to commission a theft. So he kept looking for new targets.
Another evening, when he was walking down Avenue Montaigne, near the Canadian Embassy, he noticed a stylish duplex in which the lights remained on all night. Tomic suspected that its occupants were away. Using a fire escape, he climbed to the top of a building three addresses down. He crossed from roof to roof, and then, with a rope, lowered himself to the illuminated apartment.
Once inside, he closed the window, to eliminate traffic noise. “You have to go into listening mode,” he explained to me. “It is very important, in order to avoid an encounter.” The duplex was quiet; nobody was home. He searched until he found a collection of watches and several valuable works of art, including a Pissarro. The painting, depicting a man harvesting wheat in a field, was “very beautiful,” Tomic told me, but he “didn’t feel any connection to the work.” He was more tantalized by a crocodile briefcase with a false bottom and, next to it, a holster for a gun. “The holster protected a weapon and the weapon protected the briefcase,” Tomic recalled. “One had to think about it: on this playground, a treasure hunt was about to start. But that night I did not have much time left. I had to come back another time.”
Tomic felt certain that great prizes were hidden somewhere in the apartment. He scoured the rooms over and over, but found nothing. He estimated to me that he made fifteen clandestine trips to the apartment.
On the night of May 12, 2011, he visited the duplex yet again, this time searching an armoire. He noticed an odd-looking gray screw embedded in the woodwork: there was a removable panel. Behind it, he found a safe. He opened it, and found only several empty bags. The repeated break-ins had been for nothing. That night, he left the apartment with the collection of watches and the Pissarro, which, he claims, Corvez had agreed to buy.
Police officers had been tracking Tomic’s every move. They soon arrested him and raided his apartment, where they found the loot from the duplex and an array of incriminating equipment, including a climbing harness and a grappling hook. During a subsequent interrogation, Tomic confessed not just to the duplex burglary but also to the MAM heist. There is no public transcript of Tomic’s interrogation. His lawyer, David-Olivier Kaminski, who was not present, told me, “As clever as Vjeran is, he couldn’t ignore the fact that, if he didn’t confess, he would have to lie for a very long time and with very great skill.” A quick confession, Kaminski added, “could reasonably sound like repentance.”
Anaïs Trubuilt, the prosecutor in the case, told me that Tomic’s confession seemed driven by a different impulse. “He is very proud of his work, which he is excellent at,” she told me. A court-appointed psychologist came to a similar conclusion, noting that Tomic had described himself as a “visionary.”
Around the same time that the police arrested Tomic, they raided Corvez’s gallery and Birn’s watch shop, but they did not find the five paintings from the MAM. Birn later claimed that, during the watch-shop raid, four of the paintings remained hidden behind the armoire, and that the police failed to notice them. The Modigliani, he said, was still in storage at Crédit du Nord.
According to Birn, shortly after the raid he retrieved the Modigliani and then, in a panic, destroyed all five paintings, leaving their remains in a trash bin outside the watch shop.
Birn and Corvez were soon arrested. Desperate to learn more about the paintings’ fate, Tomic tried to talk with Birn, who was being detained at the same facility. But, as Tomic later told a judge, Birn “did not want any contact with me.” Birn had even instructed a guard to place a mattress against his cell door, which was made with reinforced glass, so that Tomic couldn’t peer inside and see him.
Tomic, Corvez, and Birn were tried together. The trial, which was attended by dozens of French journalists, began on January 30, 2017, at the High Court of Paris. Corvez arrived in a black velvet suit, his white hair slicked back; a reporter from Libération wrote that he resembled “a Disney villain.” Birn, whom Le Figaro described as “a watchmaker who looks like a student,” seemed embarrassed to be in court. Tomic, the unflappable cat burglar, showed almost no signs of concern.
Journalists began referring to Tomic as Spider-Man. Despite the fact that he had stolen art “from all of humanity,” as the prosecutor put it, the public fell for him. “French people are very fond of thieves’ stories when there is no blood,” Stéphane Durand-Souffland, who covered the story for Le Figaro, told me. “For us, Tomic is a perfect thief,” because he “acted without weapons, did not strike anyone, robbed not an individual but a poorly supervised museum, fooled the guards without any difficulty, and chose the works he took with taste.” Tomic was also “polite to the judges,” Durand-Souffland added.
“We committed your hamburger to the grill, but there was no clear plan for withdrawal.”
In court, Tomic dropped the pretense of remorse. “These paintings, they are my property, these are my works,” he declared. Olivier Bouchara, who covered the trial for the French edition of Vanity Fair, explained to me, “By saying this, Tomic was telling us, ‘This heist was my masterpiece. I can put my name on it.’ ” Tomic boasted about the ease with which he had entered the museum, and compared himself to Arsène Lupin. Franck Johannès, of Le Monde, told me that Tomic’s story had all the elements of a Lupin story: “a spectacular robbery, perfectly organized, without violence, by a sort of artist.” Among the French, Johannès said, “there remains a certain sympathy for those who disrupt the established order.” He cited, as evidence, “the rebellions of 1789, 1792, 1830, 1848, 1871, 1936, and 1968.”
When Corvez spoke in the courtroom, he chose his words carefully. “I did not ask him to steal,” he said. “I told him, ‘If you happen to stumble across a Fernand Léger, I know someone who would be willing to buy it.’ ” When Corvez was pressed to identify the buyer, he demurred. “It could threaten my safety,” he said.
Birn’s lawyer said that his client was manipulated into the scheme by Corvez. When Birn took the stand, he recalled his decision to destroy the art: “I am paranoid, and this paranoia is reaching its peak. I lose all discernment and I decide to get rid of the paintings. . . . I do not know why I do this. I thought I was being followed by the police. I was convinced that I was being filmed or spied on. I thought to myself that I could not leave the building with the paintings, and so I committed the irredeemable.” Shaking with sobs, Birn repeated three times, “I put them in the trash! ”
Many people suspected that Birn’s story was a ruse. He would not have been the first person to invent such a lie. After a Romanian named Radu Dogaru was arrested for helping to steal seven paintings from the Kunsthal, in Rotterdam, in 2012, his mother claimed to have burned them in her stove. Dogaru subsequently disavowed his mother’s claim, saying, “The paintings were certainly not destroyed. I don’t know where they are, but I believe they have been sold.”
Even Birn’s wife, a fashion executive, doubted whether he had thrown the paintings into the trash. Corvez shared her view, testifying that Birn was simply “too smart” to have done this. Trubuilt, the prosecutor, said of Birn, Corvez, and Tomic, “They know very well that the day they get out of prison the paintings will not have lost value and they will be able to resell them.”
The judge found all three men guilty. Corvez was given seven years, Birn six. As Birn was being taken off to jail, he was hysterical—and yet, Durand-Souffland observed, “Birn didn’t forget to give his car keys to his lawyer.” (Birn did not respond to my requests for an interview. Corvez wrote to me, “I am not opposed to the idea of ​​an interview on this subject, nevertheless, I would like to know what would be my interest in this eventuality—would I be paid, and how much?” When I said that I couldn’t offer money, he stopped communicating with me.)
Tomic, who was sentenced to eight years, was far more collected as he left the courtroom. Many observers felt certain that he knew exactly where the paintings were. Franck Johannès, of Le Monde, told me, “Legally, nothing can be done, even if Tomic knows the truth. It is up to the prosecution to prove that he lied. In France, one has the right to lie at one’s trial. There is no offense of perjury.”
Tomic may be a skilled climber and thief, but the MAM heist required him only to crawl through a ground-floor window and then navigate around the few motion detectors that were actually working. Nevertheless, in the press Tomic’s robbery became known as “the heist of the century.” Charles Hill, the former Scotland Yard detective, is irritated by descriptions of Tomic’s heist as “spectacular” and “perfect.” He told me, “Stealing an art work is actually a rather easy thing to do. In the National Gallery in Washington, the Smithsonian has armed guards, but elsewhere it’s mostly just a few older people staring at a wall.”
Even if Tomic doesn’t quite deserve his aura of glamour, his notoriety will likely only add to the art’s value, if and when it is ever returned. In 1911, a relatively uncelebrated painting by Leonardo da Vinci, the “Mona Lisa,” was stolen from the Louvre. It took twenty-eight hours before anyone even noticed that it was gone. The painting was missing for two years and, during that time, a great many people went looking for it, and the media attention helped turn the “Mona Lisa” into the most famous painting in the world.
I wondered if Tomic might rightly claim credit for a similar alchemy, should the MAM paintings resurface. Aline Le Visage, a consultant who specializes in stolen art, told me that this was unlikely. “The theft at the Louvre in 1911, one of the most beautiful museums in the world, was like an earthquake,” she said. The investigation was aggressive and, for a while, implicated well-known people. The police arrested—and then released—the poet Guillaume Apollinaire; Pablo Picasso was also interrogated. The story stayed in the papers until the actual culprit, an Italian thief named Vincenzo Peruggia, was finally arrested. Nowadays, Le Visage said, robberies of great museums have become commonplace, and the news cycle is blindingly fast—too fast, it seems, for any single image, even one as beautiful as Matisse’s “Pastoral,” to become an enduring icon.
Tomic is imprisoned at the Centre de Détention de Val-de-Reuil, northwest of Paris. One of his regular visitors is his girlfriend, Korine Opiola, a feng-shui consultant. During the police investigation, officers referred to the sex worker who let Tomic sleep over as his “partner,” but this was incorrect. His feeling for her appears to have been more pity than love. (“All I know is that she is a very kind person who does not deserve what she does,” he wrote to me.) His relationship with Opiola is more serious. Tomic, who was released on bail after his arrest, met Opiola in Paris in the months before his trial, at a bar across the street from l’Église de la Madeleine. She was reading a magazine about U.F.O.s, and he asked her if he could have a look at it. “He was not someone who was entertaining me just to pick me up,” she recalled. “You felt like he was really present. I felt his authenticity.” Later, they communicated on Facebook and spoke on the phone. Opiola had no idea that Tomic was about to go on trial for the greatest art heist in a generation.
After his conviction, she began writing to him, and later began visiting him in prison. In his letters to her, she told me, he often laments the fact that his parents brought him back from Bosnia. Opiola told me, “Each time, he writes, ‘They stole my life from me. I would have been a good person. I was obliged to be a thief.’ ”
Opiola believes that Tomic’s current predicament is the result not just of his neglectful parents but also of his fateful visit to the Musée de l’Orangerie. “Vjeran, when he loves a work, he wants to possess it,” she said. I asked her why he couldn’t simply enjoy looking at beautiful paintings. “He does not have that distance,” she said. “It’s an uncontrollable impulse. He wants, he takes.”
Tomic expressed few regrets to me, though he occasionally made hints about the fate of the stolen paintings. In one letter, he wrote, cryptically, that “there is no better place for such art works than where I took them.” He never gave me a sense of where this secret place was, or why it was such an ideal home. In his furtive visits to wealthy apartments, he told me, he had seen many lovely paintings that he hadn’t taken, “because I don’t have the apartment or the manor of those rich people who allow themselves to have private collections.” He went on, “If I had this privilege, I would have acquired a museum by today—I can assure you that.”
In one of our final exchanges, I asked Tomic again if the paintings had been destroyed. No, he replied, adding, “Birn loves the paintings more than anything, and he would have protected them somewhere.” Then, as if unable to help himself, Tomic noted, “One day or another, he will be forced to give them to the person to whom they belong—that is to say, to me.”
In the meantime, Tomic spends his days writing letters and trying his hand as an illustrator. He draws images of ceramics, and hopes one day to sculpt the designs in a studio in Paris that Opiola owns. His black-and-white drawings, which are starkly beautiful, depict oval-shaped sugar pots and goblet-like teacups. The images are accompanied by notations with precise measurements (“3 cm long, 1.5 cm wide”), specific colors (“Red Brick”), and personal observations (“It will be more beautiful without any drawn pattern”). He knows that he is not the next Renoir, but he is gratified to be finally making art. “I do little sketch drawings,” he wrote to me. “I don’t imagine becoming a great master.” ♦
More Info: newyorker.com
a gentleman burglar aline le visage anaïs trubuilt arsène lupin art deco arthur rimbaud as spider-man avenue foch avenue montaigne basquiat bastille bertrand delanoë better than before birn birn the modigliani blue eyes’ bosnia bosnian boston braque british burglar who chagall charles hill corvez crédit du nord cubist current affairs czechowska david-olivier kaminski degas derain derek fincham disney dogaru dr. no dutch egyptian egyptians england europe fan fernand léger fincham france franck johannès frederic chopin french g-star gentleman burglar girardin goran radosavuevic goya guillaume apollinaire henri salvador hill inn israel israeli italian james bond janet flanner jardin jean michel corvez jim morrison johan jongkind johannes joshua reynolds kaminski klimt kunsthal lacoste lawrence of arabia’s le figaro le monde le visage léger leonardo da vinci liberation lincoln london lunia czechowska lupin mam marcel proust matisse maurice girardin maurice leblanc metro moderne de la modigliani monet mostar musee new balance new scotland yard olivier bouchara oscar wilde ottoman pablo picasso paris parisian pastoral père lachaise philippe starck picasso pissarro pompidou porsche cayenne post-impressionist radu dogaru renault renoir renoirs romanian rotterdam russian jew saudi scotland yard sean connery seine signac smithsonian sorbonne sotheby’s south texas college of law starck stéphane breitwieser still life with candlestick tel aviv the “mona lisa the “mona lisa” the avenue de new york the brigade de répression du banditisme the canadian embassy the centre georges pompidou the council for the prevention of art theft the french riviera the gare de lyon the high court of paris the international exposition of 1937 the isabella stewart gardner museum the louvre the marais the musée de l’orangerie the national gallery the neretva river the palais de tokyo the porte de montreuil the twentieth arrondissement thomas gainsborough tomic utrillo vanity fair vincenzo peruggia vjeran vjeran tomic warhol washington wellington yonathan birn Current Affairs

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