How a 'Robin Hood' thief stole $100 million of art in one night

Alexander Sugg
Senior Producer

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Deep into the night in May 2010, a thief stole five paintings worth $100,000,000 from the Paris Museum of Modern Art, near the Seine River.

The culprit was a wall-scaling, roof-jumping art lover who aspired to become a modern-day “Robin Hood,” according to experts.

Looking at the building, one would assume there would be high security measures to protect such valuable art. But Vjeran Tomic saw what the average person couldn’t.

The Art Of The Exit by Yahoo Finance is a true crime podcast that goes inside the most notorious heists in history. Listen here, and subscribe for a new episode coming next week.

Pictured: Vjeran Tomic and Woman with blue eyes 1918, by Amedeo Modigliani 1884-1920. Credit: Getty

Tomic practiced the art of parkour-style climbing, allowing him to begin stealing from affluent homes and neighborhoods in Paris. He could scale buildings, climb walls, run from the police on the rooftops, and crash at a swanky unoccupied apartment for the night without getting caught.

“He managed to cast himself as some kind of art lover when he was a thief really,” said Benoit Morenne, a Paris-based reporter who covered the story.

“What is known to the investigators is that he stole five paintings, right?” Morenne said. “So, we know that he stole paintings by Picasso, Braque, Matisse, Léger, Modigliani totaling around $100 million worth of beautiful paintings. What's unclear is how he chose the pictures.”

And while cherry-picking these masterpieces, he stumbled across one that wasn’t so easy to take. It was a Modigliani painting called ‘The Woman With Blue Eyes.’ He began walking toward it as the evening's grand finale, but something stopped him — something he described as the painting “talking” to him. He recalls the women in the painting saying to him, “You’ll regret it for the rest of your life.” He left it behind.

The Woman With Blue Eyes (Photo by: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

In February 2017, after Tomic confessed to the theft, a French criminal court sentenced the then-49-year-old to eight years in prison.

Listen to his story on The Art Of The Exit now on Apple Podcasts or Google Podcasts

Full transcript of the episode below:

Note: This story draws on Jake Halpern's article with Tomic, which was featured in a wonderful piece he wrote for The New Yorker titled, ‘The French Burglar Who Pulled off His Generation's Biggest Art Heist.’

Alex Sugg: (00:02) In May 2010, five paintings worth $100 million were stolen overnight from the Paris Museum of Modern Art. This was no ordinary thief, but a wall-scaling, roof-jumping art lover who aspired to become the modern day Robin Hood and actually succeeded at it. This is the story of the $100 million Paris art theft.

AS: (00:33) From Yahoo Finance, this is The Art of the Exit. I'm Alex Sugg.

Paris 2010. Nestled near the Seine River in Paris, it's the Museum of Modern Art. It's a beautiful building with a lot of foot traffic coming in and out to see its massive collection of timeless works. When you look at the building, you would assume there would be high security measures to protect such valuable work. But one man was able to see what the average person couldn't. This man's name was Vjeran Tomic.

As a boy, Tomic dreamed of being an artist one day. He drew and painted and was actually pretty talented at it. He looked up to the greats and could never shake his love or passion for masterpieces. He was also incredibly fearless in his youth. He and his friends found a certain joy in breaking the rules.

AS: (01:33) He committed his first theft when he was 10 years old by climbing through a window at a local library. In an interview with The New Yorker's Jake Halpern, Tomic said about his adolescent crimes: "It was intuitive. Nobody ever taught me anything." This set him on a path of crime throughout his teenage years.

He's a skilled athlete and began mastering the art of parkour style climbing. This allowed him to begin taking from affluent homes and neighborhoods. He would scale buildings and climb difficult walls. He would literally run from the police on rooftops, only to crash at some swanky unoccupied apartment for the night without getting caught. I kind of picture Spiderman without the webs leaping in and out of windows in the Paris night.

Tomic was also somewhat superstitious in his approach when it comes to finding his next target. In the same interview with Halpern, Tomic said, "I have to be in harmony with a certain place where I feel good. And then at that moment, I see, like images from a movie, the places where I've walked in the past week. And some places attract me and something is waiting for me in the end." Tomic lets his instincts drive and it served him pretty well for the most part, especially in May of 2010.

AS: (02:58) It probably comes as no surprise that Tomic didn't keep the most wholesome company. After all, he stole for a living. You need someone to sell all of that stuff to. Over years of crime, he managed to build a network of sorts who occasionally would hire Tomic to get specific things for them and let him charge a premium.

In the spring of 2010, a longtime client asked Tomic about a new job he had. This customer wanted a painting Léger, and Tomic knew just the place he could find one. He began scoping the Museum of Modern Art for vulnerabilities. He found countless blemishes in the security, motion sensors that didn't work, low personnel, and a bay window perfectly positioned out of sight for the nearby cameras. He began dripping acid on the windows' screws, and over a few days the stage was set for the heist.

He returned at night. He unscrewed the bay window and scales his way into the museum. He immediately sees the Léger he was hired to take. He gets it out of the frame, rolls it up, and is all set to climb out of the window and leave the museum behind. Case closed. But as he was preparing to leave, he notices a certain Matisse painting.

Alex Sugg: (04:15) Something about the piece drew him in and he couldn't resist its pull. Tomic's love of art was too great and was acting as a magnetic force against him leaving. He walks over to the frame and lifts it off the wall. It doesn't end there. Next, he sees him a Modigliani. He took it. After that, a Picasso and a Braque. Lastly, he sees another Modigliani painting called The Woman With Blue Eyes. He began walking toward it as the evening's grand finale, but something stopped in.

Alex Sugg: (04:51) He told Halpern, "When I went to take it off the wall, she, the woman in the painting told me, 'If you take me, you'll regret it for the rest of your life.' I will never forget what this woman with the blue eyes did to me. When I touched it to take it out of the frame, the feeling started instantly. A fear that came over me like an iceberg, a freezing fear that made me run away." He decided to leave the painting. He grabbed the other five, climbed out of the window, and began his journey into the quiet, dark streets of Paris carrying $100 million worth of canvas and paint.

Alex Sugg: (05:33) I interviewed Benoit Morenne, a reporter based in Paris who covered the case.

Benoit Morenne: (05:42) What is known to the investigators is that he stole five paintings, right? So, we know that he stole paintings by Picasso, Braque, Matisse, Léger, Modigliani totaling around $100 million worth of art and beautiful paintings. What's unclear is how he chose the pictures.

He managed to cast himself as some kind of art lover when he was a thief really. So, once inside the museum, what Tomic told the investigators is that he noticed basic security defaults, fails inside the museum. He was basically able to wander around the museum cherry-picking paintings.

He's something of a swashbuckling bragger, you know? He was very proud of what he had done and the way he had done it. He described it as someone doing any regular job would describe their jobs.

AS: (06:41) Can you dig into that a little bit more? What did he say about that? Did that have any repercussions for him, as far as actually getting caught?

BM: (06:50) It did. It did have very concrete implications for him. Because he was, in the end, tracked down by the police when they were tipped off that a man had been bragging about at parties. He literally bragged about stealing from a museum and having all his works of art at home and that the police would never catch him. This is, I think, one of the things that really struck me is that he was never careful about covering his tracks.

AS: (07:23) After the break, we learned a little bit more about the fine art black market and how having a big mouth can cost you your life.

AS: (07:33) Famous works of art can be big business. In 2017, a da Vinci painting titled Salvator Mundi was sold at auction for $450 million. You could go buy the Trump Tower in Manhattan with that and still have around a hundred million to spare. The value in art is clear, but I was curious while researching the story as to how valuable the art becomes when you're forced to conceal it.

AS: (07:57) I mean, it seems counterintuitive to pay millions and millions of dollars for a painting that you have to hide. It would seem that you'd buy a masterpiece to see it on your wall every day. It's a status symbol. You want to hang it up, you want to show it off. So, what exactly is the black market for fine art like? How much can you get for a da Vinci or a Picasso sold under the table?

After looking into it, you're better off stealing something else. The process to selling stolen art is incredibly complex. The first issue is you have to be a skilled thief, which is pretty difficult in and of itself. But what does one do once they actually have the painting is what makes or breaks a heist. It's extremely difficult to sell stolen art.

If you can't prove where it's from, buyers hesitate. If he can't prove you got it legitimately, it's a problem. And if you're selling it to other criminals, who's going to give you market value for a painting they have to hide? You pay for these amazing works of art and you can't even see it on your wall.

There have been numerous thefts of timeless works over the years that can't get sold once they've been stolen. It's a tough business to get in, and the rules of the trade are hard. But it won't surprise you that someone like Tomic tends to think those rules don't apply to them.

Benoit Morenne: (09:13) In sense of his personality, he was reproached with not seeming to feel bad about what he had done. At the trial, I mean he would openly brag about it, and delving into precise descriptions of how he had committed that theft. But also, how he would steal from well-healed Parisians in fancy apartments in the wealth [inaudible 00:09:46] as Paris.

Alex Sugg: (09:45) I mean, the value of the paintings obviously that's talked about, as far as how much money they were worth and he was stealing from really nice apartments before that and all that. But it only seems like maybe less so for your common or ordinary thief, this is a lot less about money to Tomic then maybe we, the average person, would assume. It seems like this is more of a game, more of like a game of chess to him, or something more like sport than actual thievery.

BM: (10:22) You're exactly right that it might've been more for sport than out of sheer greed. Because, as you know, stealing very valuable paintings proves immensely difficult in reselling them. Those paintings are usually sold for only a fragment of their market value because it's impossible to get away with them, or have them sold to a major buyer or art collector.

AS: (10:56) One photo I kept seeing when I was researching the story are all of these empty frames that Tomic ... I believe this is what happened, right? He was carving or cutting the paintings actually out of the frames and then leaving the empty ones in the museum, right?

BM: (11:16) Exactly. Exactly, yeah.

AS: (11:18) There are two ways to look at this story I think in general. And I think this is probably exactly what Tomic wants. There's like a romanticized, almost movie-esque version where you're like, wow, he's this amazing vigilante who has this calling signal of when he comes, and he takes the painting out, and he leaves the frame. And it's very symbolic of almost the sport of it, in the sense of I think he would like that imagery and that mythology to it. But then there's also just the really practical side of it of, well they're easy to roll up and take if they're not [crosstalk 00:11:56] in the frame. [crosstalk 00:11:58] which I think that's probably the real reason.

BM: (12:00) This is exactly in the sense that he, as I said before, he was really trying to come across as like a Robin Hood, mostly. Like some kind of regular Joe stealing paintings worth over a $100 million. But he's a criminal is also what it is. He was able to convey the narrative he wanted to convey. It did not convince the judge, but for the posterity he's still being remembered.

BM: (12:30) He was able to spin the narrative around that he was just that good guy, very talented, skilled thief. You know, I wasn't anticipating that. I wasn't anticipating that because he managed to cast himself in a very romantic light. So, whatever comes out of it, this is probably what people are going to remember.

AS: (13:07) Despite Tomic's charming demeanor, he has a troubled past. Before the theft at the museum, he had been convicted of selling drugs, theft with violence, aggravated robbery, and having an illegal weapon. On paper, he's a common criminal with a history of violence. But that is what is so unique about Tomic and this story. People see beyond the simple facts of what he has done and somehow he maintained a pretty favorable image in the public eye by bragging about his success in stealing. And although this clearly wasn't by accident, it may have also been his downfall.

AS (13:49) I think Ben is right. The memory of Tomic will be remembered in an overwhelmingly positive light, a modern day Robin Hood. He's spun the narrative to be romantic and intriguing and he has fulfilled his childhood dream in a sense. He seems to believe he's an artist in his own right, that Matisse and Picasso and Braque were peers in that museum with their greatest works on display on the same walls as his Magnum Opus theft that night. He has successfully conveyed that in his message to the world.

The unfortunate part of the story is the missing art. Chances are they're sitting in a lockbox somewhere rolled up and hidden from the world. Maybe Tomic will have a buyer for the paintings once he's released, but it'll be a far shot from getting what they're actually worth. Meanwhile, these masterpieces are locked away somewhere they no longer can be seen and enjoyed by a casual person visiting a museum.

Perhaps Tomic's real crime isn't how much the art is worth in dollars or value or any of that, but in the possibility that they'll never be seen again in real life. It makes you wonder if a true art lover would steal and hide these pieces of work from the world, or if underneath it all, he's just a run-of-the-mill thief who dressed up the story to make himself look a little less like a criminal in the public eye.

The Art of the Exit is produced by Yahoo Finance at our studios in New York City. This episode was written, edited, and produced by me, Alex Sugg. Thank you to Benoit Morenne for your time and contributing to this episode, and walking us through the entire Tomic story.

AS: (15:59) Select quotes from this story come from Jake Halpern's article with Tomic, which was featured in a wonderful piece he wrote for The New Yorker titled, The French Burglar Who Pulled off His Generation's Biggest Art Heist. If you want to dig deeper into the story, I'd highly encourage you to go read it. You can find a link to that article on our article for this episode on Yahoo Finance.

If you enjoyed this episode, please head over to Apple Podcasts and leave us a five star rating and review there and share the story with your friends. We'll be back soon with a new episode. So until then, thank you so much for listening to The Art of the Exit.

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