In a stealthy overnight heist, burglars slipped into the Paris apartment of Picasso’s granddaughter and spirited away two portraits of women the artist loved, slicing one of the paintings out of its frame.
The thieves were so quiet that the two people in the apartment of Diana Widmaier-Picasso at the time didn’t hear them make off with the art treasures, police said. The burglars left few clues, and police said they were not sure how the intruders gained entry.
The two paintings — one of Pablo Picasso’s daughter Maya, the other of his second wife, Jacqueline — together are worth an estimated $66 million.
The paintings join 549 other missing or stolen works by the prolific Spanish painter, sculptor, graphic artist and ceramist, considered by many the leading artist of the 20th century. According to the Web site of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Picasso produced more than 20,000 works of art during his long career.
Art experts say that if the burglars hope to sell the paintings, they are in for a surprise.
Any work by Picasso is “very hard to fence because it’s so well-known — stealing a Picasso is like stealing a sign that says, ‘I’m a thief,”’ said Jonathan Sazonoff, who runs a leading Web site on stolen art.
Art expert: Sale is possible
Katie Dugdale of the Art Loss Register, which maintains the world’s largest database on stolen, missing and looted art, said that although it’s difficult, famous artworks can be sold on the black market.
“Even though they can’t get full value, there’s still some value, unfortunately,” she said, particularly if the artworks are used to fund other illegal activities, like arms trading.
In high-profile cases like the theft of the Picassos in Paris, recovery is likely because of intense media attention and ramped-up police efforts.
“Usually with things like this, they’re recovered right away,” Dugdale said, noting that the paintings, already recognizable, will become nearly universally so after their images appear in the media. For most works, however, she said the average recovery time is seven years.
Anatomy of a break-in
Investigators said Wednesday they were struggling to piece together what happened.
Burglars entered the apartment in a chic corner of the Left Bank late Monday or early Tuesday, police and the prosecutor’s office said. Police said they were examining a door lock to see if it was broken, and were unsure if the alarm system had been turned on.
Once inside the apartment, the thieves cut the edges of one painting, “Maya and the Doll,” to take it out of its frame, a police official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the investigation is continuing.
The painting has sentimental value for Widmaier-Picasso: It shows her mother, Maya, as a young girl in pigtails, eyes askew in the classic off-kilter Cubist perspective. Another version of the painting hangs in the Picasso Museum in Paris.
Maya was Picasso’s daughter. Her mother was Marie-Therese Walter, whom Picasso met when she was a fresh-faced, blonde teenager. Their affair did not last. Four years after Picasso died in 1973, Walter committed suicide by hanging.
Maya Picasso married Pierre Widmaier and had three children, Olivier, Richard and Diana Widmaier-Picasso, an art historian and author of a book called “Picasso: Art Can Only be Erotic.”
‘Jacqueline’ is missing
The other missing painting is “Portrait of Jacqueline,” and the burglars took the frame with it, police said. The painting was one of many that depict Picasso’s second wife, Jacqueline Roque, whom he married in 1961 when he was 79 years old and she was in her mid-30s.
After Picasso died of a heart attack, his heirs divided up the paintings that he treasured over the years. While the two stolen portraits are worth tens of millions of dollars, they are not as valuable as some other works — Picasso’s “Boy with a Pipe,” for instance, sold at auction in 2004 for $78.7 million.
But the stolen paintings are important because the artist chose to keep them, said Pepe Karmel, an associate professor at New York University and the author of “Picasso and the Invention of Cubism.”
“They were meaningful to him, so he didn’t sell them,” Karmel said.
Did they take the drawings?
It was unclear if the thieves also made off with drawings by Picasso. Police and the Paris prosecutor’s office mentioned only the two paintings, but the director of the Picasso Museum in Paris, Anne Baldassari, said several paintings and drawings were stolen. She did not give details.
The Art Loss Register now lists 549 missing Picasso pieces, including paintings, lithographs, drawings and ceramics, said Beth Kocher, an art historian with the register. In all, the group’s database contains more than 170,000 pieces of stolen, missing or looted art.
The number of missing Picassos is so large because he was so prolific. He created so much in so many different media, in fact, that it is difficult to pinpoint an exact number of his artworks — it depends on what counts as art.
Auctioneers in Paris in 1998 sold matchbox covers that Picasso doodled on, as well as other small treasures. One item on the auction block was a scrap of paper with a bloodstain on it. Below the stain, Dora Maar, another of Picasso’s muses, wrote: “Blood of Picasso.”