A Cubist painting by Pablo Picasso which the artist himself donated to the country of Greece will go back on display at the newly-renovated National Gallery in Athens following its recovery.
Now, the Greek police have revealed the jaw-dropping confession of the thief, who says he is sorry and asks for mercy.
The 49-year-old Greek construction worker was arrested as a suspect nine years after the art heist, which also included a windmill scene by the Dutch painter Piet Mondrian.
The art thief now says he is sorry for the art theft, telling authorities on Tuesday that the decision to steal the Picasso and Mondrian paintings was “the biggest mistake of my life.”
Picasso’s “Woman’s Head” and Mondrian’s “Stammer Mill with Summer House,” were stolen in January of 2012 from the National Gallery in Athens. At the time Gallery officials came under withering criticism, as the facility had proactively no antitheft devices or procedures.
After the suspect was detained for questioning on Monday, the artworks were recovered, found wrapped in plastic sheets and hidden in a dry river bed outside Athens.
Picasso heist was “The biggest mistake of my life”
“I want to tell you something else that I did many years ago and I have a burden on my conscience and I cannot sleep. In 2012 I entered the National Gallery and got 3 paintings. I will tell you everything in as much detail as I can remember,” the thief said, according to police on Tuesday.
“I only ask for your understanding because about 9.5 years have passed and I have already suffered a stroke. My aim is to work fully with the competent authorities to fully recover the paintings. I am very sorry for my act. I have always been interested in works of art…
“I made constant visits to the National Gallery and became acquainted with the works and the space until I believed that one of them could become mine. These thoughts tormented me for about 2 years and led me to make the biggest mistake of my life.”
National Gallery was as familiar as the palm of his hand
“For about 6 months before the theft I made many visits…”, he said, as a precursor to the Picasso theft, and continued: “Because of my involvement with construction I knew the building materials and I could understand where there was a concrete wall and where plasterboard.
“I sat for hours inside observing not only the works of art but also the configuration of the space, the behavior of the guards, where there were windows, cameras… I also did the same in the surrounding space. I was having coffee and sitting around the gallery for hours.”
“I do not remember how many nights I sat hidden in the plants and watched the guards. I may have done it more than 50 times in the last 6 months before the theft. So I managed to get a very good knowledge of security systems.
“I knew all the habits of the guards, when they changed shifts, who smoked and who went out in the garden… I knew that they had decreased recently due to the financial crisis, I knew that there was an alarm. So I decided that what I really needed to do was learn how to do it right. I had not decided which project I would take but only that I wanted to get one.”
The 49-year-old obtained everything he needed for the theft from shops in the Monastiraki area. “I went to Monastiraki, bought black boots, cloth gloves, black pants, a black T-shirt, a black hood that left only the eyes uncovered and a black bag… From my construction tools I used a hammer, an iron chisel and a knife.”
No special significance to Picasso painting theft
However, the confessed thief stated that the exact artworks he chose had no particular significance, stating “The choice of the day of the theft was random.”
The man stated that he had been staying at his uncle’s house while he described in detail the route he took after making off with the Picasso and Mondrian works.
“I entered the park and went to a wooden warehouse that was there; I went in and changed my clothes and at 9 in the evening I went out and went to the gallery called θήκη” he recalled.
“With my hands, I tried to open the leaves of the balcony door. On the second or third attempt I realized that the balcony doors were unsecured and would open if pulled harder. As soon as the balcony door moved a little, a beep sounded which I realized would call the guard. I knew he was just a guard at the time.
“So I reassembled the two leaves that were about two inches apart and went to the window. I took out the hammer, broke the glass creating a hole knowing that I have time to do it since I knew how long it takes the guard to come. After a while I heard the guard walking inside.”
As the 49-year-old said, it took 5 to 7 minutes to take the artworks out of the frames because they did not fit in the bag.
“I do not remember how I took them out… I put two paintings in their bag and at that moment I heard the guard coming and shouting “thief-thief stop!” I did not turn to look at him at all. I got up and without saying anything. Taking three or four steps, I plunged into the hole that I had opened between the plasterboards.
“I went out on the terrace and went to the sidewalk. At that moment it seems to me that I cut from some glasses I took a paper that had a design on it which was an exhibit. I wiped my hand and put it in my pocket.
“I ran out to Konstantinou Avenue, heard the gallery alarm clock ring and patrol sirens, entered the storeroom opposite the park… The police searched the park but did not open the warehouse because the door was closed. I left after a long time. I went to the bus stop.”
The confessed art thief then returned home by taxi. “I initially hid the paintings in the furniture of the large toilet at home. I threw the clothes and tools in the trash over the next few days. The theft was planned and carried out exclusively by me. There was no accomplice,” he stressed.
“I did not intend to sell the paintings nor did I ever make any such effort,” he maintained. “I was between Greece, Holland and England. At one point I confessed to a girl I had a relationship with in England that I had the paintings but she did not give a basis to what I said.”
The thief then states that at some point, he panicked from statements he saw in the press as he considered that he was being photographed. He returned to Greece in February 2021 for family reasons, and then wrapped the paintings in plastic bags. One day in May he took them by himself to Porto Rafti, where went to a stream and hid the artworks behind a large bush.
“I left and came back after a couple of days to check. I went to the spot but did not find them. At that moment I was relieved because I assumed that someone had found them so he would hand them over. The day I left them a young man had seen me… Today the police approached me and asked me to follow them. I offered effortlessly — and with relief — to help them.
“We went to the place I showed them… When I heard the policeman say that they found the parcel and I realized that they were found, I burst into tears and fell to the ground thanking them. So great was my misery to return them. I have deep regrets. I declare my complete remorse. I know I will be punished but I ask for mercy. ”