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A Picasso painting stolen from Greece‘s National Gallery has been found hidden in a ravine nearly nine years after it vanished, officials announced on Tuesday.
The painting – which was personally donated by the Spanish master to the Greek people – was stolen alongside two other artworks in an audacious heist in 2012.
Until now, the perpetrator had evaded officials, but a 49-year-old who is said to have lived between Greece and England has now been arrested.
Picasso’s ‘Head of a Woman’ (pictured) stolen from Greece’s National Gallery in 2012 has been found hidden in a ravine nearly nine years after it vanished, officials announced on Tuesday
The painting, called ‘Head of a Woman’ and gifted by Pablo Picasso to Greece in 1949, was recovered in Keratea, a rural area some 28 miles southeast of Athens, officials told a news conference.
A video shared online by the Greek police showed where the man had hidden the paintings. They were found in a ravine, wrapped in plastic sheets for protection and hidden beneath some dense and dry shrubbery in a riverbed, the footage shows.
‘Today is a special day, (a day of) great joy and emotion,’ Culture Minister Lina Mendoni told reporters.
Mendoni said the painting would have been ‘impossible’ to sell as it had a personal inscription by Picasso on the back – ‘For the Greek people, a tribute by Picasso.’
Two other paintings were stolen in the same heist in January 2012. One, called ‘Stammer Windmill’ by Dutch painter Piet Mondrian, was also found with the Picasso, but the third was destroyed in the heist when it was flushed down a toilet.
The 2012 heist at the National Gallery, Greece’s largest state art collection, lasted just seven minutes, but the planning behind it was meticulous.
It was originally believed that two men broke in, cutting the paintings from their frames, but police have arrested just one person, the 49-year-old Greek construction worker, in connection with the case.
Pictured: Stills from a video showing the painting’s hiding place, where it was found by police wrapped up. The man moved the paintings from a warehouse in Keratea to the ravine where they were finally discovered
‘Head of a Woman’, (pictured right next to ‘Mill’ by Piet Mondrian) gifted by Pablo Picasso to Greece in 1949, was recovered in Keratea, a rural area some 28 miles southeast of Athens, officials told a news conference
According to Greek news site Proto Thema, police said that the man, who is said to be an art lover himself, watched guards at the gallery every day for over six months, learning their movements and shift patterns.
He would visit the gallery as a visitor or watch it from a distance.
Investigators believe that he had worked as an oil painter himself and had knowledge of the materials and of the gallery, and that he stole what he could get his hands on in the short window he was inside the gallery for the heist.
They believe that he planned to wait a decade before selling the artworks, but his plan began to unfold at the end of last year when police started to monitor him.
It was found that the man had connections to the art world, and after learning that the police were on his trail, he moved the paintings from a warehouse in Keratea to the ravine where they were finally discovered.
The man was set to leave for the Netherlands this week, and so officers – fearing they may lose him abroad – moved in and arrested him.
Another painting stolen in the same heist in January 2012, ‘Stammer Windmill’ by Dutch painter Piet Mondrian (pictured right) was also found
‘I am a man who loves art, I wanted to do it for myself, I did not intend to sell them,’ the 49-year-old man reportedly told police when he was finally caught.
His arrest brings to a close an almost 10-year investigation that saw officials scour both legal and illegal art auctions across the globe, as well as private collections, thieves and black-market traffickers.
When he was caught, the man – who is said to be married and divorced with children – was cooperative, and confessed that he was the one to ‘disappear’ the artwork.
His lawyer Sakis Kechagioglou said: ‘My client showed practical remorse. It is an indisputable success of the Greek Police and the Department of Burglars to investigate this much acclaimed case and as a citizen I express my satisfaction for the recovery by the National Gallery and the Greek State Museum.
‘It is also an indisputable fact that in this finding and recovery, my client played a decisive role, with his full cooperation with the law enforcement authorities from the beginning and the practical remorse he showed, the statement added.
According to reports, the man said that it was his love of art that led him to the theft, and that he knew that he would not find a buyer willing to pay the value of the painting he could not prove he was the owner of.
Furthermore, had it ever been found in a buyer’s collection, it would be returned to Greece as its rightful owner with the buyers punished. The man was never able to get the paintings abroad to sell them on the black market.
Pictured: A cubist female bust by the Spanish painter Picasso, left, and a 1905 representational oil painting of a riverside windmill by the Dutch painter Mondrian are displayed by police officers, in Athens during a press conference on Tuesday, June 29
Picasso had given the cubist painting to the Greek state in recognition of the country’s resistance to Nazi Germany during the painful 1941-44 occupation.
‘This painting is of particular importance and sentimental value to the Greek people, as it was personally dedicated by the great painter to the Greek people for their fight against fascist and Nazi forces,’ she said.
A sketch by 16th-century Italian artist Guglielmo Caccia, better known as Moncalvo, was also stolen in the same robbery. But state television reported it was damaged in the heist and discarded down a gallery toilet – something the suspect reportedly confessed to.
A state report found that the National Gallery’s security had not been upgraded for over a decade, with the then police minister calling safeguards ‘non-existent.’
Several areas in the museum were out of range of security cameras, while the alarms were faulty and prone to ringing gratuitously.
In addition, the gallery was on reduced security staffing at the time owing to a three-day staff strike.
‘Today is a special day, (a day of) great joy and emotion,’ Culture Minister Lina Mendoni (right) told reporters. Mendoni said the painting would have been ‘impossible’ to sell as it had a personal inscription by Picasso on the back – ‘For the Greek people, a tribute by Picasso’
On the night of the heist, the burglar had set off an alarm by manipulating an unlocked door to send the sole guard elsewhere in the building.
The guard told police he ran after one thief, who dropped another Mondrian oil painting.
The theft, at the height of the Greek debt crisis, was followed a few months later by another high-profile robbery of nearly 80 archaeological artefacts from a museum in Olympia dedicated to the ancient Olympic Games.
The items were recovered several months later.
The National Gallery holds a prominent collection of post-Byzantine Greek art, as well as a small collection of Renaissance works and some El Greco paintings.
It reopened in March after an extensive renovation that cost over 59 million euros ($70 million) and doubled its capacity. The paintings will go back on display.