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Greek Construction Worker Nabbed in Picasso Heist

The stolen artworks, a Cubist woman’s head and a windmill scene from Mondrian, are displayed at the Greek Culture Ministry on Tuesday. Credit: Greek Culture Ministry

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.

A 49-year-old Greek construction worker has been 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.

Initially, the raid on the Athens National Gallery  had been blamed on two thieves.
The artworks had been stripped from their frames in the early morning heist which took a mere seven minutes to carry out.

A third piece of art, a pen and ink drawing by Italian artist Guglielmo Caccia, from the 16th century, was also missing in the heist, but police said the suspect told them it had been damaged and he had “flushed it down the toilet.”

During the press conference on Tuesday, police stated that the 49-year-old suspect had not only confessed to the theft but explained in great detail how he had planned the art heist for six months in advance.

Almost every day, he told them, he would monitor the movements of security guards and other staff, noting the times the guards took cigarette breaks. On January 9, 2012, the suspect set off a false alarm in another part of the building and broke into the ground floor of the museum, according to police.

It had been noted at the time of the heist that some parts of the building were not covered by security cameras.

Within minutes, four art works had been seized, although a second Mondrian painting was apparently dropped by the alleged perpetrator during his escape.

Police said the contractor, who they also described as a decorator, had hidden the paintings at his home for years and had no intention of selling them. Recently, however, he had moved them, wrapped up in plastic sheets, to a dry riverbed in Keratea, outside Athens, where they were eventually found by the police in good condition.

The museum’s security system has now been upgraded and the Greek government hailed the paintings’ recovery as “a major success.”

The Culture Minister said the National Gallery’s “greatest wound has been healed” while its director, Marina Lambraki-Plaka, told Greek media that it was “like a resurrection.”

On Tuesday, the police stated that the alleged thief had told them thoughts of stealing artworks “tormented me for about 2 years and led me to make the biggest mistake of my life.”

Recalling how he had prepared for the heist, he said “This is how I managed and gained 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.”

“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, 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.”

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. ”

Picasso donation specifically commemorates the Greek people

The Picasso work of a female head in the Cubist style was donated to Greece in 1949 with a personal dedication by the artist “In homage to the Greek people,” commemorating their resistance against the German-led occupation in World War II.

“This painting is of special importance and emotional value as the great painter personally dedicated it to the Greek people for their struggle against fascist and Nazi (occupying) forces and bears his hand-written dedication,” Culture Minister Lina Mendoni said at the unveiling of the works on Tuesday.

“That is why this painting was impossible not only to sell but even to put on display as it would be immediately identified as being stolen from the National Gallery,” she explained.

The National Gallery was recently reopened after a major renovation that lasted nine years and was delayed for months due to the coronavirus pandemic. Culture Minister Mendoni did not say when the recovered Picasso and Mondrian would go back on display.

A cubist female bust by the Spanish painter Picasso, left, and a representational oil painting of a riverside windmill by the Dutch painter Mondrian, painted in 1905 were displayed by the Greek police in Athens during a press conference held today.

According to a statement by the Greek police, he suspect in the National Gallery theft is a Greek man who is believed to have acted alone. They are now investigating the man’s claim that a third stolen work, a drawing of a religious scene by the Italian 16th-century painter Guglielmo Caccia, had been damaged shortly after the 2012 heist and has been discarded.

The Greek police authorities did not give any details on how the suspect and paintings were located, but they disclosed that the artworks had been moved to the dry river bed recently, apparently following reports in Greek news media that the police were close to making an arrest in the spectacular heist.

“Recovering the works of Picasso and Mondrian is a major success,” Public Order Minister Michalis Chrisochoidis said at today’s press conference. “The police worked systematically, in a collaborative and creative way, and they should be commended for that. At the new National Gallery, the (paintings) will be given the place they deserve.”

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