Thieves Steal Picasso, Matisse Paintings

French police say several Picasso and Matisse paintings were among works stolen from a Paris museum. The total value of the haul is estimated at more than $130 million. The paintings were reported missing from the Museum of Modern Art on Thursday.

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Five masterpieces worth more than $100 million were stolen from a Paris art museum today. French police say they suspect just one person carried out the crime, although detectives say the thief may have been helped by someone on the inside.

Eleanor Beardsley has the report from Paris.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: No one knew that the paintings had been stolen until curators arrived at work at the Paris Museum of Modern Art this morning. The masterpieces included works by Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse. The thief came through a window, the only one that wasn't hooked up to the alarm system. Museum security cameras picked up a man wearing a ski mask.

Christophe Girard is deputy mayor of the city of Paris, which runs the museum.

Mr. CHRISTOPHE GIRARD (Deputy Mayor, Paris): (Through translator) There were guards making rounds. There was a security perimeter, and there were three people inside the museum all night. But the thief was able to outsmart the system, and no one noticed a thing.

BEARDSLEY: There was massive foreign interest in the story and TV journalists from all over the world reported from the steps of the museum, which is just across the Seine River from the Eiffel Tower.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

BEARDSLEY: And the heist has been the top story on the news in France. There have been varying reports about the value of the stolen art. Estimates range from $130 million to as high as $600 million. But art critics, like Didier Rykner, say that question is moot because the paintings can never be sold.

Mr. DIDIER RYKNER (Art Critic): What is a thief going to do with these paintings because it's not possible to sell them on the art market? Is it blackmail for the insurances, or is it some people who want to keep it for themselves?

BEARDSLEY: Rykner says the real tragedy of the theft is that art lovers will no longer be able to view the paintings. That's a view shared by Ellen McBreen, who teaches modern art at Wheaton College in Massachusetts and runs a tour business in Paris.

Professor ELLEN MCBREEN (Art History, Wheaton College): I could teach an abbreviated history of art in France - 1905, 1922 - with just these five paintings because they are, you know, that rich in ideas and innovations. And one of the great losses, of course, is that, you know, collections are arranged to tell stories, and now five chapters of that story are gone.

BEARDSLEY: Late in the day, another revelation in the case shocked art lovers across the city. Mayor of Paris Bertrand Delanoe admitted that the museum had reported its alarm system was out of order a whole two months ago.

For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley in Paris.

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