Simon SaysSimon Says NPR's Scott Simon Shares His Take On Events Large And Small

City Of Lights, But Not Alarms

Five of the world’s great works of art were stolen this week. A Picasso, a Matisse, a Braque, a Modigliani and a Leger were stolen Wednesday night from the Paris Museum of Modern Art.

Not by a cunning team of con artists, accomplished in disguise, gymnastics, and computer science, but some guy dressed in black.

Ooooh, there’s a clever disguise.

Paris police who analyzed the museum’s security camera video say one man, clad in black, apparently smashed a window, clipped a grid with a bolt cutter, and strolled off with five masterpieces worth an estimated $130 million.

No alarms sounded. The French press quoted unidentified sources as saying that the security alarm system had been down for two months, but not repaired. Anyone who has ever tried to get a car or toilet repaired in France will find that plausible. The alarm repair people must have been on spring strike. Or just finishing lunch.

The Mayor of Paris says only, "Ah, the alarm system was not on." The three guards who were on-duty are being questioned.

But great paintings aren’t hot cars or big-screen TVs. It’s difficult to fence five of the best-known paintings in the world. Art experts guess that they may simply be quietly ransomed for an insurance settlement.

A lot of people are asking the Paris city government, which oversees the museum, "How could this happen?"

This week the French press reported that as generals keep fighting the last war—that’s why they built the Maginot Line—museums keep protecting against the last theft.

In 2004, Edvard Munch’s iconic "The Scream," and his sketch called "Madonna," were stolen from the Munch Museum in Oslo by two men who evaded all the sophisticated electronic tripwires ringing the museum by just stepping up and ripping those paintings from the wall in the middle of the day.

Emmanuel Pierrat, a Paris lawyer who specializes in art, told the Times of London that since then, many galleries have focused on protecting their paintings from visitors who might try to deface or steal them, trusting that sophisticated and expensive electronic systems, sensitive to motion and light, will secure the museum at night.

But—only if you turn it on.

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Simon SaysSimon Says NPR's Scott Simon Shares His Take On Events Large And Small