“For the Greek people, a tribute from Picasso,” Pablo Picasso inscribed on the back of his painting “Head of a Woman,” which he presented as a gift to the National Art Gallery of Athens in 1946, to honor the nation’s resistance against the Nazis.
So when thieves stole the painting in 2012, leaving behind empty frames, it was mourned as a national loss.
An investigation failed to turn up the painting – until late Monday. Nine years after the heist, police announced that the Picasso, as well as another famed oil painting, “Stammer Windmill” by Piet Mondrian, which disappeared from the gallery the same night, had been recovered.
The paintings are set to be returned to the National Gallery walls, although officials did not specify when.
A video posted by the Greek ministry of culture shows police locating the paintings in a shallow hole in a grassy, rocky area in a gorge.
The paintings were found in a crypt in Keratea, a town in East Attica on Greece’s mainland. Police have arrested and are interrogating a 49-year-old construction worker. Officials on Tuesday said that he confessed to the theft, and led police to a forest area in Porto Rafti, Attica, where he said he had hidden the paintings.
At a news conference on Tuesday morning, where officials displayed the paintings, Lina Mendoni noted the Picasso’s “special importance” because of the painter’s handwritten dedication to Greece on the back.
“That is why this painting was impossible not only to sell but even to put on display, as it would be immediately identified as being stolen from the National Gallery,” she said.
The gallery closed shortly after the theft in 2012 for a major renovation. Last month, it reopened to the public. Mendoni described the paintings’ recovery as a “gift” that “heals the wound of 2012.”
Through what ARTNews described as a “stunning tip,” police learned that the Picasso may have still been in Greece – and that it was possibly put up for sale for $20 million on the Greek illicit market. But there were no buyers for the high-profile artwork, the outlet reported.
Although reports from 2012 suggested that thieves worked together, police now think that the suspect worked alone.
The paintings were stolen in a “near-perfect” seven-minute heist, ARTNews reported.
First, throughout the night, whoever stole the pieces set off the museum alarms until guards disabled the system. Then, at 4:30 a.m., they entered the gallery through an unlocked balcony door and swiftly stripped the paintings from their frames. They set off an alarm, and were only just slipping away by the time guards arrived. In a chase, the suspect dropped “Landscape With a Farm” by Mondrian, but made off with the two oil paintings and a 16th-century drawing.
Public Order Minister Michalis Chrisochoidis told reporters Tuesday that the police worked “systematically, in a collaborative and creative way.” At the new National Gallery, the [paintings] will be given the place they deserve.”
In the wake of the theft, the museum overhauled its security practices.