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February 1, 2023

Ukraine very own, "Arsène Lupin" is sentenced to five years in French prison

In 2018 a painting Le Port de La Rochelle by French Neo-Impressionist painter Paul Signac was stolen from the Musée de Beaux-Arts in the city of Nancy, in north-east France.  The theft, which took place in broad daylight, involved at least three accomplices, one of whom removed the painting from the wall and then sliced the canvas away from its frame using a box-cutter.  The culprits then rolled the painting up, and walked out of the museum, deftly hiding the stolen painting under a raincoat one of the thieves were wearing.

At the time of the theft, the artwork was estimated to be worth more than one and a half million euros.

Flash forward to April 2019 when Kyiv police raided the home of a suspect allegedly linked to the murder of a jeweller named Serhii Kiselyov, shot dead in his car on March 5, 2019 in Kyiv in a daytime assassination-style killing.

As they searched the residence in the Ukrainian capital, this suspect informed them that there was a valuable painting hidden in a cupboard in the home, advising them to handle it carefully.  The painting turned out to be the stolen 1915 oil painting by Paul Signac.

Interrogated by officers, this suspect implicated Vadym Huzhva, a Ukrainian  collector and sometime art thief from Kharkiv, who at the time was already serving a prison sentence in Austria for art theft.  In that case, Huzhva was one of three well-dressed men in jackets and coats who, working in tandem, waltzed into the Dorotheum auction house in Vienna and stole Golfe, mer, falaises vertes by Pierre-Auguste Renoir in November 2018.  This stolen painting was worth some €120,000 and €160,000 at the time of its consignment. 

At the conclusion of his Austrian prison sentence, Huzhva was extradited to stand trial in France in June 2020, where he was held in pre-trial detention until his court case began on January 30th.  But not just for the stolen Signac artwork, but also the theft of several art works, including a second Renoir, Portrait d'une Jeune Fille Blonde.  This painting was taken on September 30, 2017 from the wall of a gallery in the Parisian auction l'Hôtel des Ventes de Saint-Germain-en-Laye (Yvelines) operated by SGL Enchères/F. Laurent de Rummel where the artwork had been on display just prior to its auction.  

CCTV Image captures three thieves in the Dorotheum theft

Meanwhile, Le Port de La Rochelle was restituted by the Ukrainian authorities to the Musée de Beaux-Arts in September 2021. 

By the time Vadym Huzhva finally appeared for trial in France before the Specialized Interregional Court (Jirs) this week, an investigation entrusted to the SRPJ of Nancy and France's Office central de lutte contre le trafic de biens culturels (OCBC) had documented that this Ukrainian "Arsène Lupin" was responsible for a total of at least five thefts in France.  In addition to the Signac, and the second Renoir, Huzhva was also implicated in the thefts of a rare book with 12 gouaches by Russian artists stolen from the Hôtel Drouot auction house, the theft of another painting "Composition with Self-Portrait" by Giorgio De Chirico stolen on November 16, 2017 from the Fabrégat Museum in Béziers, and two stolen artworks by Eugène Boudin and Eugène Gallien-Laloux, taken from the Chateau de Versailles auction house in Versailles in 2018. 

A quick search of Ukrainian news outlets shows that Guzhva has also been implicated other art thefts in his home country, one of which involved a painting  stolen from the Odessa Art Museum on 21 June 2005, which was discovered by police rolled up and sealed in a bag, and stuffed under the seat of his Opel-Astra car in 2006.  And just like in this case, while appearing before the court, the defendant railed angrily against his prosecutors and his charges, claiming he was falsely accused and citing far-fetched conspiracies.  

Yet, despite being held in pretrial custody in Ukraine for several years, the Odessa Museum theft charges failed to stick, despite suspicions that Guzhva that he might be responsible for as many as two dozen museum thefts.

Back in France, prosecutors pointed to the fact that Guzhva's flights into the country coincided with the periods of each of the theft incidences occurred, as did his hotel reservations near each of the intended targets.  CCTV footage also revealed the same, or quite similar, modus operandi, and illustrated that the targets were often quite similar.  Artworks found on his phone, as well as the contact details for accomplices which matched descriptions in CCTV footage, also provided further evidence in the prosecution's favour. 

So, after just two days before the court, Vadym Huzhva was sentenced by the French judge to 5 years in prison.  The court also sentenced two of his known accomplices, tried in absentia, to three years each.  A fourth suspect, a woman, has not been publicly identified.