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‘French Connection’ Raises Fears of International Organized Crime

November 9, 1987 GMT

TOKYO (AP) _ Four French detectives arrived in Tokyo today to investigate an art theft ring that allegedly brought at least eight stolen paintings by impressionist masters into Japan.

Police say they are searching for two Frenchmen suspected of masterminding the art thefts and staging Japan’s largest cash robbery - $2.44 million - last November in Tokyo.

The French Interior Ministry’s central office for the repression of art thefts sent Mireille Balestrazzi and three other detectives to Tokyo to trace the stolen French paintings in Japan. Japanese officials have recovered at least five stolen works sold to private collectors here.

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The cases, which the Japanese press quickly dubbed the ″French Connection,″ have raised concern that foreign organized crime is making inroads into this island nation.

Japanese news reports say five paintings by Jean Baptiste Camille Corot, two by Maurice Utrillo and at least one by Claude Monet have been traced to Japan.

Of the Corot paintings, stolen in October 1984 from a museum in Semur en Auxois in central France, Japanese police officials said four already have been confiscated from private collections.

One of two Maurice Utrillo paintings stolen in France and sold in Japan was recently found in Osaka in western Japan, news reports said. The painting, ″Big Clock on the River Bank,″ was believed stolen from a collector’s home in Paris early this year.

Witnesses said three men robbed the delivery van, and police later recovered $110,000 in an underground parking lot. Fingerprints on the bills matched those of the two suspected Frenchmen, Kyodo News Service quoted police as saying.

Police decline to comment on many of the reports, but they do say the Frenchmen came to Japan early last November and left from Tokyo’s Narita Airport less than five hours after the robbery, using false passports.

They also are alleged to have brought the five Corot paintings into Japan in April and October 1985, and police suspect many other stolen paintings may have been sold through the ring of art thieves.

Last week, a Japanese freelance journalist was quoted as saying he had offered to act as a mediator between the French government and the two Frenchmen for the return of nine paintings stolen from the Marmottan Museum in Paris.

The journalist, who spoke on condition of anonymitu, told the newspaper Mainichi Shimbun that the Frenchmen wanted $3.7 million for the nine works, including Claude Monet’s ″Impression - Sunrise.″

French Embassy officials in Tokyo said they could not comment because investigations were still under way.

The case led the National Police Agency chief, Hideo Yamada, to advise police officials at a conference today to be more aware of international crimes.

″You each should develop more ‘international sensitivity.’ We must deal with the growing threat of international crime,″ he said.

Professor Hiromitsu Iwai of Toyo University said in a telephone interview, ″Up to now, foreign criminals have come mainly from Southeast Asia, and Japan, as an island nation, has been relatively isolated from international crime.

″It is unusual to have such an ‘underground cultural exchange’ from a European country,″ said Iwai, who specializes in criminal sociology. ″Japan has grown wealthier, but this is not such a good thing.″

Dealers estimate 30 percent of world art sales are to Japanese, often large corporations that buy secretly for tax-free investment purposes.

Japan’s secretive art collectors offer a ready market for stolen works, said Nobuo Abe, curator of the Bridgestone Museum of Art. He said most dealers often don’t know they are buying stolen goods and would avoid such purchases if they knew.

″Japanese collectors seem to be very relaxed about collecting art, unlike in the United States and Europe,″ he said. ″While collectors in the West demand documentation of the entire background of a purchase, Japanese buyers will often just buy on sight.″