Art Thieves Grab $1.15 Million Degas as Heists Spread

Thieves who took an 800,000 euro ($1.15 million) pastel drawing by Edgar Degas from a French museum also attempted to steal two paintings, including one by Degas.

"Les Choristes" (1877) was unscrewed from a wall of the Musee Cantini in Marseille on Dec. 30 or Dec. 31, while on loan from Musee d'Orsay in Paris. The robbers also tried to unscrew two paintings, said prosecutor Jacques Dallest, who said a criminal investigation was opened into the theft and attempted thefts, Le Figaro reported on its Web site, citing Agence France-Presse.

Curators and art insurers have been assessing European thefts as other high-value works have reappeared on account of the thieves' inability to sell them. Works still missing include a sketchbook that vanished from Paris's Picasso Museum in June last year. About 30 works worth 1 million euros, including items by Picasso and Rousseau, were stolen from a villa in southern France, police said on Jan. 2.

"This is an awful thing to have happened, and has left me in a state of shock," Marie-Paule Vial, who heads Marseille's 11 national museums including the Cantini, said of the Degas theft. "What is all the more terrible is that the work does not belong to us."

Fragile Pastel

Vial said she experienced nothing on this scale in her 25- year career and failed to understand why robbers should have targeted the pastel, which measured 27 centimeters (10 inches) by 32 centimeters. While it was framed and covered with glass, she said, pastels are fragile and hard to move. "We have hope and are crossing fingers" the work will be found, she said.

The show from which it was stolen, "De la Scene au Tableau" ("From the Stage to the Canvas," Oct. 6, 2009 -Jan. 3, 2010), included nearly 200 works on the theme of performance. There were two Degas oils: "Portrait of Mlle. Fiocre in the Ballet 'La Source'" (1867-8), from New York's Brooklyn Museum; and Orsay's well-known "The Orchestra at the Opera" (c. 1870). Also on display were paintings by Delacroix, including a small self-portrait, and Vuillard, Vial said.

Other French galleries that have been robbed include the Musee des Beaux Arts in Nice, where, in August 2007, masked and armed thieves stole a Monet, a Sisley and two Brueghel paintings. They were arrested in Marseille 10 months later trying to sell the works, which were found in a van.

Punched Monet

In October 2007, five people broke into the Musee d'Orsay at around midnight. One of them punched a Monet picture, "Le Pont d'Argenteuil" (1874), causing a 10-centimeter rip in the canvas. The five were later found thanks to video images.

Stolen art often resurfaces because it's impossible to sell on the open market, insurers and museum directors said. A version of Munch's "The Scream" was stolen in 1994 and returned later that year. Another version was robbed in 2004 and recovered in 2006. Two J.M.W. Turner paintings belonging to Tate were stolen from Frankfurt's Kunsthalle Schirn in 1994 and later recovered.

"No matter how skillfully executed these thefts sometimes are, they are generally poorly conceived," said Robert Korzinek, fine-art underwriter at insurer Hiscox Ltd., referring to the Degas theft. "The chances of an eventual recovery should be good."

The rising value of art and its public accessibility inside museums "is too great a temptation for thieves," Korzinek said. "The chance of converting the artworks into anything more valuable than newspaper headline glory is slim."

Interpol Alert

Details of the Degas pastel were immediately transmitted to Interpol's 188-country police network, and images of it were published all over the world. As a result, the Degas "will have no value on the open market: It will be literally priceless," said Korzinek.

When stolen works do reappear, they often show signs of wear and tear. A Leonardo da Vinci oil painting stolen in 2003 from the Duke of Buccleuch's Scottish castle was found four years later. "The Madonna of the Yarnwinder" has just gone on display at the National Gallery of Scotland after scrapes on the canvas were restored, according to Korzinek.

Damage is exactly what Picasso Museum Director Anne Baldassari fears when it comes to the Picasso sketchbook stolen last June. The small red album of 33 unsigned pencil drawings by Picasso dated 1917-1924 was removed from a locked glass case.

"The investigation is still going on, and police are pursuing both in-house and external leads," she said in an interview in Paris, pointing out that the notebook had "little value" on the open market.

Baldassari said her hope was that the thieves, regardless of their motivation, they would be conscious enough of its value as a piece of artistic heritage to "protect it from blind destruction."