PARIS—A co-defendant in one of the world’s biggest art heists testified in court Monday that he destroyed and threw away five art masterpieces worth more than $100 million that were stolen by a thief nicknamed the “spider-man.”
Yonathan Birn was among three people who went on trial in the case Monday. The five paintings stolen in 2010 from the French capital’s city Museum of Modern Art—a Picasso, a Matisse, a Modigliani, a Braque and a Fernand Leger—have never been found.
“I threw them into the trash,” Birn repeated three times at the court bar, in tears. “I made the worst mistake of my existence.”
Neither the investigating judge nor other defendants at the trial believe Birn’s claims. The investigators are convinced the five paintings have been taken out of France, but they have not been able to prove that, court documents show. Birn’s co-defendants testified he was ‘too smart” to destroy the masterpieces.
Lead suspect Vjeran Tomic, dubbed “the spider-man” by French news media, has been convicted 14 times in the past, notably for thefts. Authorities found climbing gear at his home: gloves, ropes, harness, climbing shoes and suction cups.
Tomic testified that around 3 a.m. on May 20, 2010, he broke into the museum near the Eiffel Tower with apparent ease, taking advantage of supposed failures in the security, alarm and video-surveillance systems.
“Spider-man” removed the glass from a bay window without breaking it, cut the padlock of the metal grid behind it, allowing him to then move from one room to another without arousing the guards’ suspicions.
Tomic was there to steal a painting by Fernand Leger and possibly a Modigliani ordered by a third defendant, 61-year-old antiques dealer Jean-Michel Corvez, who confessed to being a receiver of stolen goods. Tomic said that when he came across the Picasso, the Matisse and the Braque paintings, he decided to take them as well.
Several hours after the headline-making burglary, Tomic said, he offered the five paintings to Corvez, who said he was “totally stunned” by them.
Corvez said he initially gave Tomic a plastic bag containing 40,000 euros ($43,000) in small denominations just for the Leger because he was unsure he would get buyers for the other paintings.
Corvez became worried about keeping the artworks in his shop after several months and showed them to his friend Birn, a 40-year-old expert and dealer in luxury watches. Birn said he agreed to buy the Modigliani for 80,000 euros ($86,000) and to store the others in his studio. The Modigliani was hidden in a bank safe, he said.
Birn said he panicked when police began investigating and finally one day in May 2011 he retrieved the Modigliani from the safe, returned to his workshop to break the stretcher bars on all the canvasses with fierce kicks and then threw them all into the building’s trash.
Tomic is charged with stealing public cultural property, while Corvez and Birn are accused of receiving stolen goods. The three men are also accused of taking part in a criminal conspiracy to commit the thefts.
Both Corvez and Birn can be sentenced up to 10 years in prison if convicted. Tomic faces up to 20 years in prison as a repeat offender. The trial is expected to resume later this week.
After he was questioned, Tomic said he was sure Birn didn’t destroy the paintings and wants him to say where they are located. “These are my artworks,” he said.