Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Theft at the Louvre

by Gigi

I briefly mentioned an eventful experience I had many years ago at the Louvre in this blog post here.

Now that the topic of museums has come up, I'm going to explore this famous museum theft in a bit more detail.

A few days before my 23rd birthday, I found myself aimless in Paris. I'd recently finished working in London on a temporary work permit, and was trying to travel for as long as possible as cheaply as possible. What better way to spend the day than head to the Louvre on the one day a month when it was free?

As it turns out, a lot of other people had the same idea of heading to this free Sunday at the Louvre -- including an art thief.

On May 3, 1998, Le Chemin de Sevres, a painting by Camille Corot worth $1.3 million, was sliced from its frame. No alarms sounded. Nobody even saw the thief.

I don't remember exactly where in the museum I was, because I didn't realize what was happening until we began to be ushered into the mail hall of the Louvre, underneath the giant glass pyramid. (I assume I was looking at sculptures somewhere in the sprawling museum, since stone carvings are my favorite type of art.)

I was staying at the flat of a French friend I'd known when he was a foreign exchange student in California, but I was alone at the Louvre that day. I had my backpack with my camera inside, so alone in the vast crowd, I started taking pictures.

The press reported that when the missing frame was discovered, "exit doors were immediately locked, and every bag carried by every visitor, was checked thoroughly, until the search was concluded, unsuccessfully, many hours later."

Parts of the press reports were true -- but not everything.

While the authorities kept us trapped in the hall for hours, I had a great time observing everything that was going on. Unlike many of the tourists who were scrambling to leave to catch flights, I wasn't in a rush to get out of the museum. When I finally exited, behind most of the tens of thousands of visitors -- I was never searched.

This fact, even more than the daring theft of the painting, has stuck with the mystery writer in me.

Had the thief slipped out before the doors were locked? Or perhaps... could the perpetrator have been one of the faces in my photographs?

I followed the story in the newspapers for a while, including the hard copy clippings above that I saved in my scrapbook. But as I write this, the painting has yet to be found.

I had already been interested in art theft in mystery novels (e.g. Elizabeth Peters' Vicky Bliss mysteries) but this experience cemented my fascination. I was thrilled to discover Hailey Lind's art lover's mystery series a few years ago -- written under a pen name by the Pens' own Juliet Blackwell -- which happens to be how I got involved with these writers who formed the Pens Fatales.

The best art theft thriller I read lately was actually a nonfiction book, Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World's Stolen Treasures. It's a memoir by a retired FBI agent who spent his career working undercover to rescue stolen art. When I finished the book, I found I'd put at least a dozen post-it notes in the pages to capture details I wanted to remember when working on my next mystery -- which most definitely involves an art thief.


Rachael Herron said...

Oh, this is sooooo cool. And I can just see you there, snapping pictures, completely content and curious at the same time. Perhaps you bumped elbows with the perpetrator! How neat.

Mysti said...

I'm always trying to understand the brain-fever passion that DEMANDS one possess a thing or a person. People who decide the best solution to their problems is to commit a crime...those people fascinate me.

Thanks for this enchanting mystery. Looking forward to the book you write!

Unknown said...

Such a fun and fascinating story. Totally see you in the Louvre snapping pictures instead of being annoyed at being trapped!

And I'm with Mysti, I've never understood the compulsion to own something that should be shared with the world.


Juliet Blackwell said...

Wow, this is great stuff, Gigi! It could make a fascinating short story about an art theft, couldn't it? And I loved that book: Priceless. Amazing how the real stories are crazier than fiction, especially in the art world!

Gigi Pandian said...

Ohhhh... a short story out of this. Love that idea...

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