Culture

Spider-Man’s $100m Art Theft from the Paris MOMA

Vjeran Tomic, the thief who loved paintings
In May 2010, Vjeran Tomic did not need his infamous climbing skills to rob the Musée d’Art Moderne (MOMA). He simply unscrewed a window, cut through the lock holding a grate in place with bolt cutters, and crawled inside the museum. The act itself was quick and efficient but had required lots of preparation; Tomic had meticulously returned to the window over the six previous nights to get ready. He stripped each screw of rust and paint before carefully removing them— the holes filled with modeling clay the exact color of the window frame. He even had a brief trial run: entering the museum, avoiding the motion detectors that were still working, then leaving the museum and waiting 15 minutes on the banks of the Seine to make absolutely sure that no alarms had been triggered. (The security system was overdue an overhaul and Tomic had noted on an earlier recce, the motion detectors that no longer functioned.) Tomic had only intended to steal Fernand Léger’s 1922 “Still Life with Candlestick,” on “order” from his sponsor, Jean Michel Corvez, a French businessman and fence, who had a list of discerning clients with a taste for paintings and jewelry. (Tomic had been only too happy to steal to order.)
But once inside the MOMA, with the Léger safely removed from its frame, Tomic went rogue.
Fernand Léger, Still Life with Candle Stick, 1922. He became entranced first by a Matisse painting, “Pastoral,” then by Modigliani’s “Woman with Fan,” and unable to stop himself, he then took Picasso’s “Pigeon with Peas” and Braque’s “Olive Tree Near L’Estanque.” Tomic had been about to steal another Modigliani (“Woman With Blue Eyes”), but sensed that the painting had spoken to him, warning him that he would regret taking it for the rest of his life. He heeded the warning and put it back.
Although it was a few hours before dawn and the streets of Paris were deserted, Tomic made two trips into the museum and even sat in his parked Renault in the Avenue de New-York, still thinking of his reaction to the “Woman With Blue Eyes.” Tomic said he had been “chilled with fear.” Corvez, doubtless realizing that the heat from the theft of five paintings would be even more intense than just one, was less than impressed when Tomic produced the Léger and the four others.
He agreed to take the Modigliani as well as the Léger but Tomic wanted to keep the other three for himself but nevertheless asked Corvez to store them for him.
Pablo Picasso, 1911, Le pigeon aux petits pois (Pigeon with Peas)

Vjeran Tomic, the thief who loved paintings

In May 2010, Vjeran Tomic did not need his infamous climbing skills to rob the Musée d’Art Moderne (MOMA). He simply unscrewed a window, cut through the lock holding a grate in place with bolt cutters, and crawled inside the museum. The act itself was quick and efficient but had required lots of preparation; Tomic had meticulously returned to the window over the six previous nights to get ready. He stripped each screw of rust and paint before carefully removing them— the holes filled with modeling clay the exact color of the window frame. He even had a brief trial run: entering the museum, avoiding the motion detectors that were still working, then leaving the museum and waiting 15 minutes on the banks of the Seine to make absolutely sure that no alarms had been triggered. (The security system was overdue an overhaul and Tomic had noted on an earlier recce, the motion detectors that no longer functioned.)

Tomic had only intended to steal Fernand Léger’s 1922 “Still Life with Candlestick,” on “order” from his sponsor, Jean Michel Corvez, a French businessman and fence, who had a list of discerning clients with a taste for paintings and jewelry. (Tomic had been only too happy to steal to order.)

But once inside the MOMA, with the Léger safely removed from its frame, Tomic went rogue.

Fernand Léger, Still Life with Candle Stick, 1922.

He became entranced first by a Matisse painting, “Pastoral,” then by Modigliani’s “Woman with Fan,” and unable to stop himself, he then took Picasso’s “Pigeon with Peas” and Braque’s “Olive Tree Near L’Estanque.” Tomic had been about to steal another Modigliani (“Woman With Blue Eyes”), but sensed that the painting had spoken to him, warning him that he would regret taking it for the rest of his life. He heeded the warning and put it back.

Although it was a few hours before dawn and the streets of Paris were deserted, Tomic made two trips into the museum and even sat in his parked Renault in the Avenue de New-York, still thinking of his reaction to the “Woman With Blue Eyes.” Tomic said he had been “chilled with fear.”

Corvez, doubtless realizing that the heat from the theft of five paintings would be even more intense than just one, was less than impressed when Tomic produced the Léger and the four others.

He agreed to take the Modigliani as well as the Léger but Tomic wanted to keep the other three for himself but nevertheless asked Corvez to store them for him.

Pablo Picasso, 1911, Le pigeon aux petits pois (Pigeon with Peas)

Corvez had been right about the ensuing outcry that followed: Bertrand Delanoë, the mayor of Paris at that time, declared that everything had to be done to recover the masterpieces, and the elite armed robbery unit, the Brigade de Répression du Banditisme, immediately launched a full-scale investigation. (While Tomic always maintained that the stolen paintings — apart from the Léger — had been chosen simply because they had moved him, they also just happened to be the MOMA’s most important paintings, leading the investigators to state that the thief “had a sophisticated knowledge of the works.”) The brigade’s only clue in the months that followed was a description from a skateboarder of a tall, white man with a muscular build, an oval face and square jaw, who he had seen acting suspiciously a few days before the robbery, observing the windows in the side wall of the museum

The MOMA had been inaugurated in 1961 and is situated in the east wing of the Palais de Tokyo in the exclusive 16th arrondissement. The building is not only a monumentally impressive building on the right bank of the Seine, but it also possibly offers the best views of the Eiffel Tower from all of Paris. The museum is dedicated to modern and contemporary art of the 20th and 21st century with some 15,000 works of art on display which include paintings by Picasso, Matisse, Dufy, Braques, Modigliani, Chagall, Giacometti, Suzanne Valadon and Bridget Riley. (The museum reopened in 2019 after a $10 million redesign.) It is free to access.

Tomic was no stranger to either art museums or affluent neighborhoods. He had discovered the Musée de l’Orangerie as a teenager and had been instantly transported by Monet and Renoir into a world of beauty that until then had been unknown to him in the harsh grimness of his life near Père-Lachaise cemetery. There is no doubt that Tomic was genuinely moved by fine art, indeed he became a more than competent artist himself, but until he met Corvez, Tomic did not know a middle man with the contacts to handle stolen art work, and so instead he had specialized in jewelry and cash robberies, usually from multi-storied apartment blocks.

And so began his “Spider-Man” fame.

Musée d’Art Moderne de Paris © Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0

Tomic had been born in Paris in 1968 to Bosnian parents but when he was barely a year old, he was sent to Mostar in Bosnia to live with his grandmother. By six years old, Tomic was scaling stone bridges and leaping into the Neretva river below. In Jake Halpern’s long interviews with Tomic after he’d been incarcerated for the MOMA thefts, Tomic admitted proudly to already having strayed from the straight and narrow when he had scaled a 10-foot wall in Mostar to break into a library and steal two ancient books. He was 10 years old at the time.

The following year, he was back with his parents in Paris. He spoke no French and resented his warring parents for forcing him back from Bosnia. His resentment, athleticism, and natural intelligence were a potent mix for a teenager who had already displayed devious tendencies.

Père-Lachaise — just a few blocks from Tomic’s home — became his playground, where he hung out with his friends, climbed the high walls surrounding the cemetery, and broke into nearby apartment buildings. The flea market at Porte de Montreuil proved a useful place to offload their ill gotten gains. But Tomic’s ambitions exceeded petty thefts and the limited scope of flea markets, and as he honed his climbing skills to a fine art, so he began expanding his neighborhoods into affluent areas of Paris. Tomic claimed that some quarters attracted him, spoke to him, rather like the paintings he stole.

Climbing multi-story buildings, leaping from rooftop to rooftop and picking locks… His subsequent haul of jewelry and cash kept Tomic in a very comfortable lifestyle. Famous designer Philippe Starck, after being robbed by Tomic, compared him to the fictional thief Arsène Lupin, although the description of “gentleman burglar” was perhaps a tad too generous.

(Tomic, had in fact, been convicted of a series of crimes including aggravated burglary, drug dealing, theft with violence, and possession of a fire-arm. However, he was more than a brutal, ill educated, common thief. Apart from his passion for art, he loved classical music, nature, good food, and he dressed in style.)

He stole very little art at the beginning, except for his own personal collection. Paintings he had found irresistible, a Degas and a Signac, he had hidden in cellars or displayed on his walls.

All that changed in 2000. Using a crossbow with ropes and carabiners, he entered an apartment where the occupants were sleeping and stole a million euros worth of paintings including two Renoirs, a Braque, a Utrillo and a Derain. Tomic was beginning to feel invincible.

But randomly offloading famous paintings is no easy feat. There aren’t that many private collectors with the money to buy a painting that they then must hide away, never able to display nor resell. And rarely can the thieves offer them back to the insurance companies – a far too risky enterprise for the thief. Paintings or artifacts stolen by organized crime groups like the mafia are overwhelming stolen for their bargaining power with the courts if they are prosecuted later for whatever crime they may have committed. Producing a priceless painting from its hiding place is guaranteed to take many years off a prison sentence. But Corvez, with his list of contacts, who could tell Tomic exactly which painting to steal, was exactly what Tomic needed. Plus, there was the inevitable thrill of planning the robbery using his own very particular skills. If they had both been honest men it would have been a marriage made in heaven…

Amedeo Modigliani, Woman with a Fan, 1919

However the heist at the MOMA had even unnerved Tomic who was convinced that he was being followed when he met with Corvez the next day in an underground parking at Bastille.

Corvez paid Tomic 40,000 euros for the Léger painting, all in small notes stashed in a shoe box. Tomic didn’t dare go home but went instead to the apartment of a woman he trusted, an immigrant sex worker, where he taped the cash under a chair and attempted to keep a low profile. Six months passed, Tomic appeared to be in the clear, until his name was mentioned by another thief in police custody at the time. The description the skateboarder had given matched Tomic’s profile. In the meantime, Tomic had begun to distrust Corvez who had informed him that the buyer for the Léger painting had completely lost his nerve and had given it back to Corvez after two days. The Modigliani, however, had been bought by a watch dealer, Yonathan Birn, who as well as possessing an art degree from the Sorbonne, had his premises in the Marais. Birn then stored the Modigilani in a safety deposit box, but agreed to hide the other four paintings in his shop.

Tomic was right to be paranoid about the police. They were monitoring his phone calls and did have him under surveillance. Tomic, aware that there was in fact, very little honor among thieves, and now distrusting Corvez completely, began recording their phone conversations.

By now, Tomic was seriously short of cash and went in search of his next hit. He found it in a duplex apartment in the Avenue Montaigne, an easy target for a thief with Tomic’s head for heights, and unshakeable belief in his invincibility. Up the fire escape, across the rooftops and by rope, down to the chosen apartment – almost child’s play. The lights were on, but with his uncanny, sixth sense, Tomic intuited that the apartment was empty. There was a small treasure trove of expensive watches and a Pissarro painting, but Tomic knew that there was more and repeatedly returned to the apartment until he found the safe. But this time Tomic’s luck finally ran out. The safe was empty, save for empty bags, and the police had been tracking his every movement. Tomic was arrested and his apartment searched. Not only was the loot from the apartment discovered but Tomic’s climbing equipment was found as well. It is easy to understand why Tomic, caught red-handed for the duplex robbery, confessed, but perhaps what has never been satisfactorily explained was Tomic’s voluntary mea culpe for the theft from the MOMA. It may simply be that Tomic was proud of his exploits in the MOMA. One can only hazard a guess at his motive.

Corvez and Birn were arrested and their premises searched. Not a single one of the five paintings was found. Birn attested that he had panicked and burned all five of them. Very few people believe him: neither the police, journalists covering the trial, nor Tomic himself, who asserted that Birn loved paintings too much to commit this ultimate sacrilege. The unpalatable truth is that rolled up paintings, out of their frames, take up very little space and can be hidden away successfully almost anywhere. (During the MOMA theft, Tomic had carefully left the frames leaning against the wall right under the spot where the paintings had hung.)

In 2017, all three men went before the judge. All three were found guilty. Tomic was sentenced to eight years, Corvez seven, and a hysterical Birn to six.

Vjeran Tomic is serving his time at the Centre de Detention de Val-de-Reuil in the northwest of Paris.

The fate of the five paintings by Matisse, Picasso, Braque, Léger and Modigliani remains unknown.

Lead photo credit : Raoul Dufy’s La Fée Electricité. Photo courtesy of Musée d’art moderne de la Ville de Paris