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Art pirates steal a Picasso from wealthy Arab's yacht

Deirdre Mooney,Colin Blackstock
Saturday 01 May 1999 23:02 BST

THE MYSTERIOUS theft of a Picasso has brought consternation and celebration to the super-rich resort of Antibes on the French Riviera.

The millionaires and billionaires who moor their yachts there are terrified they could be the next victim. Humbler citizens have a sneaking admiration for the thief, or thieves, who relieved the anonymous owner of his pride and joy.

The painting, Buste de Femme 1938, valued 19 years ago at pounds 4m, was taken from the salon of a Saudi Arabian multi-millionaire's yacht last month. Police think the thieves are a well-organised gang expert on art. Shortly after the Antibes theft, a bust of Dora Maar sculpted by Picasso was stolen from a square in Paris, heightening fears that a gang of art thieves may be at work.

The rich are hastily upgrading their security precautions; those who earn their living servicing them are recalling To Catch a Thief, the classic Cary Grant film. The debonair Grant played a charming, if feckless, thief who wouldn't hurt a fly - a description that could apply to whoever is responsible for the Picasso heists. After all, say the not-so-rich of Antibes, no-one was hurt and the Arab owner is so wealthy that pounds 4m is just pocket money.

He does not see it quite that way and he is offering a reward of almost half a million pounds for the return of the stolen work. The famous oil painting had a special place on his 75m yacht, Coral Island. The yacht, worth more than pounds 60m, costs pounds 6m a year to run, and she was furnished with paintings and works of art worth pounds 151m. She has a Jacuzzi, four VIP suites, three speedboats and scuba diving gear, with a permanent crew of 25, though she is used only three months a year.

Coral Island was to go to Barcelona for mechanical work.The owner's usual art expert was called in to pack up the artefacts and pictures and arrange for their safe-keeping in a bank vault. Only two other people knew the exact whereabouts of Buste de Femme 1938, one of two Picasso works on the yacht. And it wasn't where it should have been.

Normally it was hung under the protective eye of a sophisticated alarm system. But subcontractors hired to refurbish the apartments said they couldn't paint properly because the picture was in the way. It was put it in another room under lock and key - but it was no longer protected by an alarm. The last person to see it was the English packing expert who left it wrapped on the floor of the cabin on 6 March, ready for taking away. But it was gone when he came to collect it for storage on 11 March, although an alarm-protected Matisse in the same room had not been touched. Coincidentally, the video surveillance equipment of the mooring had been out of action for three months.

Insurers at Lloyd's have hired Assistance d'Etudes Conseil, a private investigation company expert in art and jewellery thefts, which is advertising worldwide for the return of the painting intact for a reward of pounds 350,000. An image of Buste de Femme 1938 has also been put on the internet. Mr Eric Cros, the head of the investigation team, said: "This is one of the strangest art robberies I have come across and we still have no clues."

The painting came from Picasso's own private collection. Paintings he wanted to keep, he dated but did not sign. Buste de Femme 1938 was bought by the Saudi Arab at the Pace Art Gallery in New York for pounds 4m. The model was Dora Maar, the artist's lover. It has never been seen publicly or lent to any museum or art gallery.

"None of the owner's friends, except for one other person, knew he owned the painting," said Mr Cros. "Last year when he was entertaining guests, he had the painting removed because he didn't want anyone to know he had it."

Selling such a stolen work would be difficult and police feel there may have been a "theft to order" for a private collector. Or perhaps the thieves, or thief, were not aware of its value. Mr Cros is re-interviewing crew members, who have been ordered not to leave, and warning port authorities that if the video surveillance equipment is not repaired, captains of the big yachts will be told Antibes is a security risk. Mr Cros added: "The owner, whom I don't know, also has his own private detective on the case. He is very upset and he wants his painting back."

Earlier this year Jordanian police held four men and seized stolen paintings by Picasso, thought to be worth around pounds 28m if originals. The paintings are believed to have been stolen from Kuwaiti palaces during the Gulf War in 1990/91.

The Picasso bust of Dora Maar stolen from a Paris square last month was worth pounds 100,000. Dora Maar, born Theodora Markovitch in 1907, became Picasso's muse and mistress from 1936 to 1943. She died in 1997.

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