How a self-proclaimed ‘Art Freak’ pulled off a daring heist at the National Museum of Greece | Smart News


Greek police finally cracked a nine-year-old art theft this week, leading to the celebrated return of two paintings by Pablo Picasso and Piet Mondrian. These works and an unrecovered drawing were stolen from the National Gallery-Alexandros Soutsos Museum in Athens on January 9, 2012, in a sensational early morning theft.

Act on the advice of the Greek newspaper Proto Theme, police apprehended their prime suspect, construction worker George Sarmatzopoulos on Monday, according to a police statement.

To the surprise of officials, Sarmatzopoulos confessed to the theft on the fly. He then directed police to a dry ravine southeast of Athens, where they discovered the two stolen works of art wrapped in protective plastic and tucked away under a thicket of brambles.

Based on the well-organized nature of the crime, police previously assumed the burglary was committed by two or more people, as the Associated Press reported in 2012. But in his testimony, partially reprinted in the Greek newspaper Kathimerini, the 49-year-old divorcee says he single-handedly succeeded in the job.

“I want to tell you something else that I did many years ago, and it weighs on my conscience and I cannot sleep,” Sarmatzopoulos began in his statement to the police, translated by the Art journal and reported in Kathimerini. “In 2012, I entered the National Gallery and took three paintings. I will tell you everything in as much detail as I can remember.

Sarmatzopoulos further claims that he began to constantly visit the National Gallery for about six months before the crime, until the idea of ​​stealing a work for himself “tormented” him. He never planned to sell the paintings, he says: “I hadn’t decided what job I would take, only that I wanted to take one.

Picasso dedicated this 1939 work to the Greek people in honor of the Greek resistance to Nazi Germany during World War II. On the back of the canvas, he wrote a message: “For the Greek people, a tribute from Picasso”.

(Courtesy of the Hellenic Police)

Police unpack Picasso’s painting after retrieving it from a dry gorge in a river. A man confessed to stealing this painting, one by Mondrian and a third work destroyed in a 2012 burglary of the National Gallery of Greece.

(Courtesy of the Hellenic Police)

Pablo Picasso, Head of a Woman (1939) probably represents the French photographer Dora Maar (1907-1997).

(Courtesy of the Hellenic Police)

On the contrary, he seems to have intended to keep the works for the sake of profit. The man has repeatedly described himself as an “art lover” and used to use the Twitter username “Art Freak”, as reported by Helen Stoilas for the Journal of the Arts.

Sarmatzopoulos says he spent months collecting information on the location of paintings, security cameras, where to enter and exit the building, and when guards typically took cigarette breaks, as reported by Helena Smith for the Guardian.

One randomly chosen Sunday evening, he says he began to intentionally set off alarms in the museum without entering the building, prompting the only night watchman on duty to deactivate at least one of the alarms. Around four in the morning, dressed in black, the suspected thief then entered through an unlocked balcony door and slipped into the galleries.

“I crawled into the room and started waving my arms to see if the alarm radars were working,” Sarmatzopoulos recounts in his testimony, as printed in Kathimerini and translated via Google Translate. “Since I didn’t hear any alarms, I assumed the guard had turned it off. I got up and found myself in front of Picasso’s painting.

In less than seven minutes, he carefully stripped three works of their frames: Head of a woman (1939), a cubist portrait that Picasso made of his former lover Dora Maar; that of Piet Mondrian Stuttering mill (1909), a first figurative work by the Dutch artist representing a windmill; and a pen and ink work by Italian artist Guglielmo Caccia, dating from the 16th century.

While both paintings were found this week, the third stolen work is still missing. Sarmatzopoulos told police the paper was damaged during the raid and he ultimately threw it down the toilet, BBC News reports.

He stored the works in his home and in a remote warehouse for years. Then, in January, after reading a report that police were on the verge of solving the ten-year-old mystery, Sarmatzopoulos frantically moved the paintings from storage to their hiding place in the ravine, as reported by Dimitris Popotas and Aria Kalyva. for the Greek newspaper. Proto Thema.

Authorities arrested the suspect on Monday after fearing he was about to leave the country for the Netherlands, per Proto Theme.

At the time of the theft, the Greek economy was reeling from the economic recession and a prolonged debt crisis, according to the Guardian. Subsequent investigations found that limited funding had led to serious security issues at the museum, including a lack of guards, an outdated alarm system, and reduced security camera coverage.

The National Gallery closed shortly after the heist in 2013 for an 8-year $ 70 million (59 million) expansion, which more than doubled the size of the museum, as has reported William Summerfield for the Art journal in March. Although attendance remains limited due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the museum finally reopened on March 24 this year to coincide with the 200th anniversary of Greece’s independence, the Culture Ministry noted in a report. communicated.

“Today is really a special day, a great joy but also a great emotion,” Culture and Sports Minister Lina Mendoni said at a press conference on Tuesday, according to the police statement.

Mendoni notes that Picasso made a donation Head of a woman in Greece in honor of the country’s resistance to Nazi Germany during World War II. On the back of the canvas, the Spanish artist wrote in French: “For the Greek people, a tribute from Picasso. (This distinctive signature would have made the painting “impossible” to sell on the black market, adds the Minister.)

“Picasso dedicated the painting to the Greek people in recognition of the National Resistance,” Citizen Protection Minister Michalis Chrysochoidis told the conference, according to the statement. He noted that if “[a] Greek was found to deprive “the land of precious painting,” Greeks were found to bring it back. “

Chrysochoidis added: “I wish all the works of art from our Greek homeland to return to their natural place, to return to their place. “

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