As the clock struck midnight on January 1, 2000, crowds around the world went wild. It was not only a new year, worthy of all the celebration that entails, but also a new millennium, one that many believed would start in 'Y2K' disaster.
But the crisis was averted, the clocks and computers rolled back to zero with nary a hiccup, and the revelry began in full force in towns like Oxford, England.
While many had been preparing for the evening by stocking up on canned goods and bottled water (just in case), one person in the U.K. had a different idea of preparation.
Sometime after 1 a.m. on New Year’s Day, while fireworks were blasting and revelers carousing in the surrounding streets—a thief successfully carried out his plan to steal Paul Cézanne’s 'View of Auvers-sur-Oise' from the University of Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum.
The history of art theft is littered with amateurs who have royally bungled their ill-considered attempts at a get-rich-quick scheme (hint: stealing art is complicated and rarely lucrative), and heists that are successful are often attributed to woefully inadequate security.
But neither of these plot lines applied to the Cézanne-napping. The thief who broke into the Ashmolean on New Year’s Eve carried out a professional, highly planned heist that many have likened to that of The Thomas Crown Affair.
The plan was meticulously executed. Using the construction scaffolding at nearby Oxford University Library, the thief climbed onto the roof and then hopped across several buildings to get to the museum.
The thief then broke through a skylight, lowered a rope into the gallery below, and shimmied their way down.
The real evil genius of the plan was in their next move. As the thief entered the gallery, they activated a smoke canister and, using a fan, spread a fog that obscured the view of the security cameras—one of the reasons the thief has never been identified—and set off the fire alarm.
While most would consider tripping an alarm in the middle of a crime a deal-breaker, in this case, it bought the thief an extra couple of minutes. While security guards waited for the fire department to arrive, the thief was able to grab the Cézanne from a nearby gallery, shimmy back up the rope, reverse their roof hopping, and disappear into the surrounding crowd.
The whole heist took less than ten minutes and, by the time the authorities had cleared the building and determined that the only emergency was the empty space where the Cézanne had once hung, the thief was gone without a trace.
“'It is the only Cézanne we have in the Ashmolean, and it is very important as an example of late 19th-century painting,” Dr. Christopher Brown, then-director of the Ashmolean, told the Guardian. “This is not just a criminal act but a very selfish act.”
'View of Auvers-sur-Oise' was painted by the artist sometime between 1879 and 1882, and it represents a key step in Cézanne’s career as he transitioned from his early, darker work to the Post-Impressionist style that he would become known for.
Cézanne may now be considered one of the most important artists of the 19th century, paving the way for Modernism and gaining followers of the likes of Matisse, Picasso, and Kandinsky, but he was ignored and even rejected for most of his career (his first solo show wasn’t until the age of 56).
While he was struggling in his early 30’s to gain a toehold in the artistic community, the artist decided to move his family to Auvers-sur-Oise in France at the suggestion of his dear friend and fellow painter Camille Pissarro.
“Our Cézanne gives us hope, and I’ve seen some paintings; I have at home one of remarkable vigor and power,” Pissarro wrote in a letter to Antoine Guillemet in early 1872. “If, as I hope, he remains for awhile in Auvers, where he’s going to live, he’ll astonish a lot of artists who were too quick to condemn him.”
He would astonish artists, although their condemnation lasted for several more decades, but the year and a half that Cézanne spent in the small town to the northwest of Paris would continue to influence him for a long time.
“Cézanne mightn't have been Cézanne without [Pissarro],” Jerry Saltz wrote in a 2005 review of an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art called “Cézanne and Pissarro: Pioneering Modern Painting.” “It was Pissarro who pulled Cézanne toward nature, away from expressionist painting, the palette knife excesses of Courbet, and what art historian Roger Fry called ‘artistic madness.’”
Well after he left town in early 1874, Cézanne would continue to paint landscapes inspired by Auvers-sur-Oise. One of these was the painting that ended up in the Ashmolean collection.
As the smoke cleared in the early morning hours of the new Millennium, detectives on the scene started looking at the case as a “stolen-to-order” job. The Cézanne was in the very same gallery as a van Gogh, a Picasso, a Manet, and a Monet, but none of the other paintings were touched; the culprit clearly had a mission when they broke through the skylight.
But in an interview he gave to NPR several days after the theft, Dr. Brown, the museum’s director, said that he wasn’t sure that was the case. He told NPR's Liane Hansen that earlier in December, a Cézanne had sold at an auction in London for £18 million. He thought the man responsible had learned about the sale and saw an opportunity to cash in.
Beyond being a devastating loss for the museum, the theft was particularly hurtful to Brown because of the path it took to get to Oxford.
The Cézanne was part of a group of paintings donated to the museum by Richard and Sophie Walzer, who had come to the U.K. as German refugees fleeing Hitler during World War II.
“In giving this group of pictures to the Ashmolean, they were thanking the British people for taking them in at this terrible time, and particularly the people of Oxford,” Brown told NPR. “So there is a real sentimental link between this picture and Oxford. And it is profoundly upsetting to me, as it is to many of us here, that that link has been broken by this criminal act.”
As the confetti settled from the New Year’s celebrations and the world got back to their lives, word of the theft began to hit papers around the globe. Worth a reported $4.8 million, 'View of Auvers-sur-Oise' was one of the most significant art heists in recent decades, and that distinction earned it a not-so-prized spot on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Art Crimes list, where it remains today.
But despite the publicity, no break has come in the case of the missing Cézanne and the painting’s whereabouts remain just as hidden as the identity of the person who took it in the first place.
But wherever the perpetrator is—whether enjoying the spoils of their made-for-hire job or sneaking glances at the famous painting that is not so easy to sell—the joke may be on them.
In February 2016, new guidelines were passed in the U.K. that demand a more severe punishment for offenses deemed “heritage crimes,” a designation for which the New Year’s Eve theft more than qualifies. Had the thief been discovered before that date, they would have faced a less severe sentence.
If the thief is ever caught they may find themselves wishing that, on that momentous Millennium night, they too had had no greater plans than to enjoy a raucous display of fireworks just like everyone else.