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Masterpiece Paintings, Stolen in 1985, Returned to Paris

December 6, 1990 GMT

PARIS (AP) _ Nine paintings that vanished in a brazen 1985 theft, including the Monet masterpiece that gave impressionism its name, returned to Paris on Thursday after police found them in a Corsican villa.

Police said recovery resulted in part from information gathered from gangsters in Japan.

″It’s the best Christmas present we could have,″ said Arnaud d’Hauterives, curator of the Marmottan Museum.

He said Claude Monet’s ″Impression Sunrise″ and the other works might be ready for re-display at the Marmottan by the end of the month after specialists treated them for damage caused by humidity.

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D’Hauterives joined Culture Minister Jack Lang in praising the persistence of a special police art theft unit, headed by Commissioner Mireille Balestrazzi.

Balestrazzi, one of the highest-ranking women in the national police force, said the key breakthrough in the case came during a 1987 trip to Japan to bring home four paintings by Camille Corot that had been stolen in 1984 from a museum in eastern France.

She said her team learned that a Japanese collector had been considering the purchase of one of the nine Marmottan works, although the transaction did not take place.

She said additional information was obtained through contacts with the ″yakuza,″ or members of Japan’s organized crime network. Some of the gangsters were approached by representatives of the thieves, she said, but refused to get involved.

Balestrazzi provided few other details about the five-year investigation. Authorities said one man had been arrested in Corsica and about a dozen other people had been questioned, but they indicated that the thieves themselves remained at large.

The nine paintings from the Marmottan, along with an as-yet-unidentified 17th century painting, were found Tuesday in a villa in Porto-Vecchio in southern Corsica.

Balestrazzi said the theft was committed solely in hopes of profit and was in no way linked to any of Corsica’s militant separatist movements.

She said the works were in good condition, although a few had suffered slightly from humidity. Experts were to conduct a thorough examination to assess their condition.

Five armed, masked men carried out the theft on a Sunday morning in October 1985, getting away easily because the Marmottan’s alarm system had been disconnected the previous night.

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About 30 visitors and nine guards were held at bay by the gunmen. They were in the museum for only about 10 minutes, and drove away after putting the paintings in the trunk of a car.

The stolen paintings included five Monets, two by Pierre Auguste Renoir and one by Berthe Morisot, as well as a portrait of Monet. Their total value was estimated at the time at $12 million, but one official described ″Impression Sunrise″ as priceless.

The 1872 work shows the port at Le Havre in a mixture of blues and browns, with an orange sun shining through the morning fog. It was first displayed in 1874, and derisive critics dismissed it as ″impressionist.″