Paris heightens vigilance at museums but doesn’t add security after huge Picasso heist

Friday, May 21, 2010

Paris heightens museum vigilance after big heist

PARIS — Paris City Hall, embarrassed by a major art heist at a museum with a broken alarm, urged security guards Friday to be more vigilant — and pleaded with the perpetrators not to damage the Picasso, Matisse and Modigliani spirited away from the city’s Museum of Modern Art.

Despite mounting criticism of museum security following Thursday’s $123 million theft and other recent heists, the deputy mayor for culture said there were no plans to add security personnel or make sharp changes to how Paris protects its cultural treasures.

“My only worry today, to be completely honest, is the safety of these paintings,” Christophe Girard told AP Television News. “These people who have taken them, I beg them not to do anything to these paintings …. These are masterpieces that belong to millions of people.”

“Don’t touch them. Give them back,” he pleaded.

The Museum of Modern Art had reported a partial malfunction of its alarm system on March 30 that remains to be fixed. With no alarm to worry about, a black-clad intruder entered the museum overnight Thursday by breaking a window, took five canvases out of their frames and fled, according to police and prosecutors.

Girard praised the thief or thieves as having “good taste” in their choice of works: Pablo Picasso’s “Le pigeon aux petits-pois” (The Pigeon with the Peas); “La Pastorale” (Pastoral) by Henri Matisse; “La femme a l’eventail” (Woman with a Fan) by Amedeo Modigliani; “L’olivier pres de l’Estaque” (Olive Tree near Estaque) by Georges Braque; and “Nature morte aux chandeliers” (Still Life with Chandeliers) by Fernand Leger.

Girard said the audio level of the alarm was partially damaged, so that guards might not have heard if an alarm signaled an intruder. But he insisted that the video cameras were working, and that he and police had seen the masked intruder on video.

Asked whether Paris museums would heighten security measures, he said, “We will continue to survey our museums, mobilize our personnel.”

Speaking earlier Friday on France-Info radio, he said, “We are not going to close off the works” or add extra security staff. He said security workers are “traumatized enough to feel obliged more than ever to monitor even better.”

Stephane Thefo, a specialist at Interpol who handles international art theft investigations, said there is no surefire way to protect paintings, and that securing treasures in historical buildings, for example, is a challenge.

“Zero risk doesn’t exist,” he told The AP by phone from Interpol headquarters in Lyon, France. “The aim of the game is to limit the risks.”

He said the key to finding missing art is having high quality photos and descriptions of the works. He also dismissed calls for electronic chips on artworks to better prevent theft and track stolen goods.

“We don’t have a universal marking system. We have works on canvas, leather, bronze, wood — there is not one thing that is adaptable for all material,” he said.

Both he and Girard said the missing paintings would be extremely hard to sell given how well-known they are.

Estimates of the total value of the paintings varied: The prosecutor’s office initially put their worth as high as $613 million (€500 million) but later downgraded the figure to about $111 million (€90 million). Girard said the total value was about $123 million (€100 million).

The Paris Museum of Modern Art reopened in 2006 after spending $18 million (€15 million) and two years upgrading its security system.

AP Television News producer Jeffrey Schaeffer contributed to this report.

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