Tomb raiders target grandest cemetery in Paris

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The Independent Online

It is the most prestigious cemetery in Paris, the resting place of the great and good for centuries. But Père Lachaise - home to luminaries such as Molière, Balzac, Proust and Oscar Wilde - has recently been playing host to altogether more dubious visitors.

The sprawling cemetery in the east of Paris, the largest in the city centre, is in the grip of a crimewave after grave robbers started targeting the treasures that lie in the thousands of tombs crammed in between the winding, tree-lined avenues.

Rather than stealing the bones or ashes of the deceased, the thieves are taking the bronze busts and other ornamental sculptures that adorn the tombs of some of the graveyard's famous residents. The Paris city council, which owns the cemetery, has lodged a formal complaint after six busts of particular artistic value were stolen.

Among the effigies taken was the bronze bust, sculpted by the renowned artist Paul Dubois, of Carmen composer Georges Bizet, who died in 1875.

A self-portrait of the sculptor and 19th-century feminist Claude Vignon was also stolen. Each of the stolen artworks has been valued at €5,000 to €10,000 (£3,400 to £7,000). The police have said the thefts are without doubt the work of an expert. "We're dealing with a group theft carried out over a short period of time," said one source. "And there is without doubt a collector behind it. The pieces are almost never catalogued, and so it would be very easy to sell them on the black market."

Père Lachaise was laid out by the architect Brongniart in 1804. A popular tourist haunt, the graveyard's two million annual visitors come principally to pay their respects to its celebrities.

It has long had problems with the desecration of its graves, from the graffiti of various over-zealous Doors fans directing visitors to Jim Morrison's tomb, to the huge, nude male angel carved by Epstein which adorns Wilde's tomb and is usually to be found covered in lipstick marks even after being "neutered" by one visitor who deemed it indecent.

The recent robberies are being taken very seriously by the police. A team of 20 security guards with dogs has been assembled to patrol the grounds of the cemetery at night in order to prevent more thefts.

Jean-Claude Hitz, a representative of the CGT trade union for Parisian cemetery workers said: "Even though efforts are being made, it's not really enough.

"A 'zero-risk' scenario doesn't exist on a site where all five gates are open to the public, and where someone could hide himself behind a cross or a tomb away from all eyes."

Concerns for the retrieval of the stolen sculptures were voiced by Hugues de Bazelaire, a restorer of funerary monuments.

"It is imperative that we photograph and make an inventory of the monuments in Parisian cemeteries," he said. "If there is no written or pictorial record of the stolen objects, they fall into anonymity and it becomes impossible to get them back."

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