A 50-year-old man who was accused of stealing three artworks from Greece’s National Gallery in Athens in January 2012 received a suspended prison sentence of six years on Friday.
The works stolen included Pablo Picasso’s painting Head of a Woman (1934), Piet Mondrian’s painting Stammer Windmill with Summer House (1905), and Guglielmo Caccia’s sketch St. Diego de Alcala in Ecstasy with the Holy Trinity and the Symbols of Passion.
The man, Giorgos Sarmantzopoulos, was found guilty of aggravated theft; the court, however, recognized his good behavior following the heist and suspended his sentence pending his appeal on the condition that he wears a monitor and stays within approximately two miles of his house.
Dubbed the “heist of the century,” the theft occurred on January 9, 2012, when Sarmantzopoulos entered the National Gallery through an unsecured balcony door. He tricked guards by triggering repeated false alarms. He then took the paintings and fled to a staircase leading to the basement, where he removed the paintings from their frames using a pocketknife. Though he maintains that he acted alone, another account detailed a second person who supposedly kept watch.
After the heist, the thief remained at large for nearly a decade.
Sarmantzopoulos was finally arrested in June 2021. Sarmantzopoulos told authorities then that he had been working in construction as a painter and that he stole the paintings out of a self-described “passion for art.”
At the time of his arrest, Sarmantzopoulos handed over the paintings by Picasso and Mondrian to the authorities and claimed the third by Caccia was destroyed.
“The irreversible damage was seen during the inspection. The color consistency was damaged. These works must be kept in special conditions so that they are not damaged,” Eftychia Agathonikou, the director of the museum’s collections, testified in court.
Lawyer and art collector Stelios Garipis said in court that he does not believe that Sarmantzopoulos committed a crime of passion. “He is a member of an international ring. A Dutch detective contacted me and told me that he has a lot of information about him… It was no coincidence that two works were returned,” he said.
“The painting [by Caccia], which is supposed to have been destroyed, was rumored to have appeared in an auction in Florence. I contacted the National Gallery to see what actions they had taken,” Garipis continued. “The simplest thing would have been to send documents [to the auction house] and see who received the painting. Because it wasn’t sold. They [the National Gallery] did nothing.”
It is unclear if the Caccia was actually destroyed. According to Garipis, foreign experts subsequently identified the work in Florence as the same Caccia piece that had been stolen from Athens.