A Ukrainian man has gone on trial in France accused of masterminding the theft of a €1.5m (£1.3m) painting discovered in a house in Kiev a year after it disappeared from a museum in Nancy.
The work of Paul Signac, Le Port de La Rochelle, went missing from the Musée de Beaux-Arts in Nancy, northeastern France, in 2018.
Museum staff were stunned to discover an empty frame on the wall after three people removed the canvas with a box cutter, rolled it up and walked out of the museum with it hidden under a raincoat one of them was wearing.
The painting, which measured 46 cm by 55 cm, apparently disappeared without a trace until a year later, when Kyiv police raided the home of a suspect allegedly connected to a murder. While searching his home in the Ukrainian capital, the unnamed suspect told them a valuable painting was in a cupboard and advised them to handle it with care.
Under interrogation, he apparently pointed the finger at a fellow countryman, Vadym Huzhva (64), then in an Austrian prison after being found guilty of stealing a Renoir painting in Vienna in November 2018. Upon his release, Huzhva was in Extradited to France June 2020.
Huzhva, an art collector, denied any connection to the theft and claimed he had been framed. His lawyer, Samira Boudiba, told the newspaper Le Parisien that the accused had “enough to say” to the court.
“He is not on the surveillance film. All you can see are three people who cannot be identified. All the video shows is the time the painting was stolen, but that’s all,” said Boudiba. “He is blamed for the theft of a painting in France, which is strange. Without getting into the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, he says it’s a conspiracy.”
Huzhva is also accused of other thefts, including the disappearance of a Renoir from a French auction house in the Paris region in 2017, the theft of two works of art from a Versailles auction house and a painting from Béziers, southern France, in 2018.
“What surprised us was how unsophisticated the theft was. It was that simple,” said François Pérain, the public prosecutor of Nancy, when the Signac painting was returned to Nancy two years ago. “They were wearing head coverings, but they performed with their faces uncovered, entered the main entrance and left through the same door.”
Painted in 1915, Le Port de La Rochelle is part of a series Signac made of the ports of La Rochelle, Marseille, Saint-Tropez and Rotterdam.
The trial is expected to last two days.