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 Kyiv a year after it disappeared from a museum in Nancy.
The work by Paul Signac, Le Port de La Rochelle, went missing from the Musée de Beaux-Arts in Nancy, north-east 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, measuring 46cm by 55cm, appeared to have disappeared without trace until a year later, when Kyiv police raided the home of a suspect allegedly linked to a murder. As they searched his home in the Ukrainian capital, the unnamed suspect told them a valuable painting was in a cupboard and advised them to handle it carefully.
Under questioning, he reportedly pointed the finger at a compatriot, Vadym Huzhva, 64, at the time in an Austrian jail after being convicted of stealing a Renoir painting in Vienna in November 2018. Huzhva was extradited to France on his release in June 2020.
Huzhva, an art collector, has previously denied any link to the theft and claims he has been framed. In court on Monday he said: “I don’t see how I have anything to do with this. You have no proof of your allegations.”
His lawyer, Samira Boudiba, told Le Parisien newspaper: “He’s 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. He’s being 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 artworks 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 so simple,” François Pérain, the Nancy public prosecutor, said when the Signac painting was returned to Nancy two years ago. “They wore headgear but they acted with their faces uncovered, entered by 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.