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

13 January 2019

Nothing to do with books, but PG thinks he’s not the only one who enjoys stories and movies about art thieves.

From The New Yorker:

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.

. . . .

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.”

. . . .

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.”

. . . .

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.”

. . . .

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.”

. . . .

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 thewindow, 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.”

. . . .

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.

Link to the rest at The New Yorker

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