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For some reason there's always been a glamour that attaches to art heists. They are a mainstay of film and literature. So is this week's theft of five paintings from the Museum of Modern Art in Paris a case of art mirroring life, or life mirroring art? That's one for Paris's philosophers to grapple with.

But the more immediate question is: why go to the immense trouble of stealing these works? Famous paintings are virtually impossible to sell on. No auction house will accept them without a history of ownership. The popular image is of some wealthy and unscrupulous art lover paying some crooks to steal a work to order, which will then be admired in a secret room.

Yet investigators believe that what tends to motivate these thefts is something different. They argue it is more likely that international criminal gangs use rolled-up paintings as a form of easily portable "currency". Which gives rise to the thought that weapons-dealers and drug-smugglers trust the value of Matisse and Picasso more than hard cash. And that leads to another bizarre thought: a criminal asking the person on the other side of his nefarious deal if he's got change for a Vermeer.

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