French police are trying to track down the owners of hundreds of works of art stolen by a compulsive thief who went on a twenty-year binge in hotels, museums, shops and galleries across France.
Officers found the works when they raided the 45-year-old alleged thief’s apartment in Avignon and came across what they described as an “Aladdin’s cave” of art.
“There were pieces everywhere, piled on top of each other,” said Captain François Toulouse, the head of departmental security in the local Vaucluse region.
Police photographed more than 500 paintings, sculptures, precious books and even vinyl records included in the haul, and have put them in an online catalogue alongside an appeal for their owners to come forward.
The suspect, whom police have not named, stuck notes to many of the pieces with the date and location of the theft and often with an estimated value.
His stealing binge was mostly carried out in the Vaucluse area but it also took him as far as Paris and even London, police said.
Police were not immediately able to say which of the works was taken when the suspect visited the UK.
“He stole purely for pleasure, for the buzz he got from the act, and he never sold the stuff he stole but rather piled it up in his home,” Captain Toulouse told Le Parisien newspaper.
“He would wear a big coat and a hat and was able to make off with very heavy objects such as a marble sculpture that weighed 40 kilos,” he said, adding that it was not yet clear if he always acted alone or had an accomplice.
The wildly successful criminal career of the alleged thief, a former civil servant, came to end earlier this month when he was spotted by the receptionist of an Avignon hotel where he had stolen two paintings a month earlier.
He alerted police who arrested the suspect and then discovered the astonishing hoard of art when they raided his home.
Police said the suspect, who they said was “affable and cooperative,” told them he was a kleptomaniac.
Five of the works found in the hall were listed in the database of the the French agency which tracks stolen art – L’Office Central de lutte contre le trafic des Biens Culturels.
A further 40 works have been handed back to people who came forward with proof they were the rightful owners.
The suspect is to go on trial in the coming months in Avignon for the theft of the two paintings in the hotel in the same town, and will be judged at a later stage for the rest of the crimes.