When officials at the Museum of Modern Art, Paris, opened up for business a little before 7 a.m. on Thursday, they discovered five paintings, works of Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Amedeo Modigliani, Georges Braque and Fernand Leger, valued at over €500 million had been stolen during the night.

CCTV footage showed a man entering through a smashed window pane. He then broke a padlock to get into the main museum.

Art experts have expressed surprise and consternation that someone could get into the museum so easily — by breaking a window pane and picking the lock — and are asking why no alarm went off.

Inside job?

There is strong suspicion that this was an inside job. The museum refused to answer questions, asking journalists to contact the office of Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoe.

This new of the theft is proving highly embarrassing to Paris City Hall and the Mayor's office continued to issue a terse “no comment” throughout the day, saying only that the investigation was being handled by France's top unit against armed robbery.

The paintings missing are: Picasso's Le Pigeon aux Petits Pois (The Polka Dot Pigeon), Matisse's La Pastorale (Pastoral), Braque's L'Olivier Près de l'Estaque (Olive Tree near Estaque), Modigliani's La Femme a l'Eventail (Woman with a Fan), and Leger's Nature Morte aux Chandeliers (Still Life with Chandeliers).

The police and investigators have cordoned off the museum, which is in the 16th arrondissements, across the river Seine from the Eiffel Tower.

Le Monde reported that the paintings were so well-known that it would be difficult to sell them in the open market.

Previous thefts

Previous thefts have involved paintings being stolen to order on behalf of private collectors.

Last December, thieves stole a pastel by Edgar Degas worth €8,00,000 from an exhibition in Marseille. The work, Les Choristes (The Chorus), was discovered missing from the Musée Cantini by a security guard when he opened up.

The work, on loan from the Musée d'Orsay, Paris, for the exhibition, had been stolen overnight.

In Marseilles, a visitor walked off with a Magritte carnet in broad daylight.

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