The Paris Art Theft: Acrobatics, Decomposition, and Imaginary Numbers

Posted on June 1, 2010


I’m sure you’ve heard of the recent theft of 5 paintings from the Musee d’Art Moderne in Paris. And I’m sorry I’ve not been around to mull over the crime with you, but I’ve been quite swamped tying up loose ends on my jobby job as I prepared to leave it for good, getting ready for a summer away, and packing up my life in New Mexico as I’ve recently accepted a position which will require me to move in the fall.

Se la vie.

(If I knew the Italian for that, I’d say it in Italian, but unfortunately I’m still speaking what I call Spitalian, which means I just speak Spanish, substitute the words I know in Italian, and hope for the best. It works better than you might expect.)

In any case, here are the paintings that were stolen, courtesy of Fincham for having assembled the jpgs. The couple of things that struck me about the theft was (1) it sounded kind of easy, and (2) there’s a good bit of hemming and hawing over the market value of the works.

A single guy, in a face mask, breaks a single window and cuts a single lock, and (voila!) he’s got access to somewhere between 100 and 500 million Euros worth of artwork. Not bad for a night’s work. So, was he was doing acrobatic flips to maneuver around lasers (a la the hot chicks in Jay and Silent Bob) or moving excruciatingly slowly to avoid triggering the motion sensors (a la Gerald Blanchard)?  Nope, the security system was just off… (cough) for the prior 6 weeks.

Tom Flynn says the theft looks like an “inside job.” Obviously someone knew the thing was off with fair conviction. I’d be surprised if we see these paintings again anytime soon, though.

As to the market value of the works, I’ve heard everything from 100 million to 500 million Euros, and its just kind of curious that the valuations are all over the map. I read one account where they were earlier appraised at over 500 million Euros, but a museum executive was saying “no, no, that’s too high, more like 100 million” (I simply can’t find the article, otherwise I’d link you).  But it’s a little like squabbling over the U.S.’s national deficit — they are all fictional numbers anyway, but how hard is it to look up what they’re insured for or have been appraised at and use that number?  I’m sure its to the museum’s benefit to downplay the value of the loss, but it’s still a little weird. If the public is supposed to have access to the works, shouldn’t the public have access to honest assessments of the market valuation in their absence?

If you are interested in the works themselves, the Guardian has a nice little summary of each with short detail here. It’s a little “art critic” for me, but check it out if “the world is taken apart as a hungry diner might decompose the carcass of a bird” doesn’t bother you.