WHERE ARE THEY?
The ‘Spiderman’ Art Heist and the Five Missing Masterpieces
Vjeran Tomic was such a stealthy thief he was known as ‘Spiderman.’ He was caught after the theft of five art masterpieces valued at $115 million. The canvases were never found.
Vjeran Tomic had developed a reputation—a deservedly infamous one—for his prowess breaking into the homes of the Parisian rich and helping himself to their jewelry and art.
An avid rock climber, he used his skills to scale and scurry and skulk up walls and across ledges and roofs with such aplomb, that he was given the highest honor in the world of cat burglars: a nickname. He was known as “Spiderman.”
And, yet, when it came to his biggest job to date—one that would go down in the annals of audacious art thefts—it turned out he didn’t need any of those skills he had so dextrously developed.
On April 20, 2010, around 3 a.m., Tomic walked up to a bay window at the Museum of Modern Art in Paris, removed the glass, cut through the padlock securing the interior metal grill, and let himself in.
No alarms went off, not one of the three security guards on duty became suspicious that something rotten was afoot, and even the security cameras didn’t yield any hints on the identity of the masked intruder. Tomic walked out of the museum that dark night with five modern masterpieces — a Léger, a Modigliani, a Picasso, a Braque, and a Matisse.
And he almost got away with it.
While his luck—and that of his two accomplices—would run out a year later, not a speck of paint from any of the five paintings, whose worth conservative estimates list at around $115 million, has been seen since.
The museum theft wasn’t Tomic’s first run-in with the law. While his B&E skills were no doubt impressive, they weren’t perfect, and he had clocked up 14 arrests for his previous misdeeds. But the scale of his modern art burglary reached new heights of audacity and intrigue.
When it comes to prominent art thefts, several false myths persist aided in large part by the imagination of Hollywood. One is the prevalence of “made for hire” jobs. In the most dramatic version of this scenario, an avid art collector or powerful crime boss commissions a thief to steal a particular work of art for the mastermind’s personal collection or for a specific, pre-arranged buyer.
It’s a compelling story; who can resist the plot of a formerly good man gone bad for the sake of his artistic passion or the imagery of a famous missing Picasso or Rembrandt reverently hung in a secret room behind a false door in a magnificent mansion somewhere on a remote hill? Plus, this theory leaves room for hope that one day the masterpiece will be discovered and returned to its rightful owner and the public eye.
But “made for hire” jobs are actually quite rare. Generally, the perpetrators of major art thefts are discovered to be common thieves unschooled in the ways of the art world.
Their knowledge ends at the price tag on the piece they have targeted, and they are often dismayed to discover that it is nearly impossible to sell a stolen work of art, even on the black market.
After all, love is the only reason to illegally acquire an incredibly expensive asset that immediately loses its value; once a piece is labeled in international databases as “stolen,” it is impossible for it to be resold on the legitimate art market unnoticed.
So, “made for hire” thefts generally remain the province of the silver screen… except in the case of the Spiderman Theft.
Tomic’s modern-art caper was the rare art crime that originated with a specific commission. He was hired by a third party to steal Fernand Léger’s Still Life with Candlestick.
The man behind the order was Jean-Michel Corvez, an antiques dealer who did not always come by his wares legally.
It is unclear if Corvez had a specific buyer in mind when he called Tomic with his latest instructions (this was not the first time they had worked together), but, either way, it was the Léger he was interested in, and it was the Léger that Tomic set out to nab that April night.
But then, Tomic was surprised to find that he encountered zero resistance entering the museum. No alarms were triggered when he removed the glass from the window (the alarms had been in need of repair for two months), and the security guards didn’t seem to be aware of his presence. “It’s one of my easiest and biggest heists,” he later bragged to reporters during his trial.
If he was going to be left alone to amble through the art-packed galleries, why not take more than he had come for?
Tomic later described himself as a “veritable art lover” and, said he took the four additional works simply because he “liked” them. Unfortunately, so did art scholars. The four paintings were all important works in the oeuvres of their modern masters.
Take the Georges Braque painting, Olive Tree near l’Estaque. Braques was critical to the foundation of Cubism (he considered himself something of a co-founder of the movement, while Picasso characterized their relationship as more of a marriage, with Braque being “my wife,” in the Old Testament helpmate interpretation of the role). But before he went all in with Picasso, Braque had a very brief Fauvist moment.
His canvas that caught Tomic’s eye was one of his few from this period, a brilliantly colorful landscape of the same town in the south of France that Cézanne, a great influence on Braque, had fallen in love with several decades earlier.
Roberta Smith, art critic for The New York Times, called this period of Braque’s work “slightly overheated,” but it still serves an important role in the understanding of the artist’s trajectory from impressionist to co-father of cubism.
Also cut from their frames were Matisse’s Pastoral (1905), Modigliani’s Woman with Fan (1919) and Picasso’s Dove with Green Peas (1911), all works from the early, foundational years of the painters’ careers.
While Tomic took these four pieces because they pleased his eye, he apparently never intended to keep them. Corvez testified that, while he accepted possession of all five paintings following the burglary, he only paid Tomic the agreed-upon price for the Léger ($43,000). He wasn’t sure if he was going to be able to sell the other four unasked-for paintings, so payment on those was conditional.
In the days that followed, the museum was closed as police strung up crime tape and inspected for clues that would lead to a suspect. Bertrand Delanoë, mayor of Paris, released a statement saying that he was “saddened and shocked by this theft, which is an intolerable attack on Paris’ universal cultural heritage,” while art world insiders speculated about who could have been motivated to abscond with such important works of art and what did they intend to do with them.
But there were virtually no clues. It seemed the criminal had escaped scot-free. Tomic surely must have thought that he had evaded the law yet again. In fact, he allegedly bragged about his latest misdeed at a party, a slip of the tongue that would prove to be his downfall.
In May 2011, the notorious Spiderman was arrested after an anonymous tip resulting from his bragging pointed a finger in his direction. Police examined his cellphone data and determined that he was in the area the night of the crime. Tomic played his part as the not-so-noble thief and quickly rolled on his accomplices.
The story that unfolded when the case went to trial at the beginning of 2017 became increasingly dramatic.
In the months that followed the crime, while Tomic and his loose lips were celebrating his success, the additional paintings were weighing heavily on Corvez, who started to become concerned about keeping them in his store. So, he decided to phone a friend.
Yonathan Birn, a watchmaker in Paris, not only agreed to buy the Modigliani outright for $86,000, he also agreed to keep the other four canvases in his own shop on behalf of his dear old pal. But as the police heat began to bear down, Birn, too, started to worry about what would happen if they were discovered in his possession.
What happened next is the real tragedy in this crime. In court, Birn claimed he collected his new Modigliani from the bank safe where he had stored it, and brought it to his workshop. There, he proceeded to kick in the stretcher bars and canvases of the five paintings. Once they were torn to his satisfaction, he threw the priceless evidence into the garbage.
“I threw them into the trash,” Birn told the court, according to the Seattle Times. “I made the worst mistake of my existence.”
And with that, the story of five incomparable works of art comes to an end, while the less successful Ocean’s Three serve out their jail sentences of eight, seven, and six years respectively for Tomic, Corvez, and Birn.
Or does it?
Not everybody believes Birn’s story, not even his co-conspirators. Some authorities think the paintings may have been smuggled out of the country, and Tomic and Corvez have said it’s unlikely Birn would have acted in such a dramatic and unintelligent fashion.
There remains a glimmer of hope—albeit one that is very faint—that one day, probably in the distant future, one or more of these five pieces might rise from the trash heap.