Art Around the World

Thief Treats Himself to Cèzanne

By Tom Gross, January 18, 2000

The Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, England, had a nasty start to the 21st century as a thief treated himself to a $5 million Millennium present.

At 1.30 am on January 1, 2000, an intruder outwitted the museum’s security system to steal Auvers-sur-Oise, a $5 million masterpiece by the French post-impressionist Paul Cèzanne. Then, at the height of the city’s Millennium celebrations, he made his way unnoticed through the thousands of people celebrating in the streets outside.

The thief is thought to have climbed on to the roof of the museum, which is part of Oxford University, and which houses one of Britain’s finest art collections. He waited until fireworks exploded all around the city created a diversion, and then lowered himself through a glass skylight into the museum’s Hindley Smith gallery where the painting was hanging.

The Oxford Police said this was a professional job lasting less than ten minutes, and the thief knew exactly what he was doing. He used a smoke cannister and a small electric fan to create a smokescreen, which briefly concealed him from the security cameras.

He ignored other more valuable paintings by Leonardo da Vinci and Picasso and went straight to seize the Auvers-sur-Oise, the only Cèzanne in the museum. The alarm went off but before security guards could arrive, the painting, which depicts a cluster of small white cottages set in a valley, was missing.

The police have appealed for any witnesses among the huge Millennium night crowd, and alerted art dealers to be on the look-out for the Cèzanne, which measures 16 by 22 inches. But they are skeptical as to its recovery. They believe that it was “stolen to order” and is now part of a private collection.

A spokesman for Oxford University, which purchased the painting in 1980, said that, among other things, the theft was an extremely selfish act, and would deprive the gallery’s 250,000 visitors a year of viewing the painting.

Article copyright © Tom Gross. All rights reserved.