On Tuesday, a French judge sentenced Ukrainian art dealer Vadym Huzhva, 64, to five years in prison for orchestrating the theft of a Paul Signac painting worth £1.3m, as well as four other works and a rare book from French museums and auction houses. He has also been ordered to pay nearly €300,000 in damages.
In 2018, the artwork by the French Impressionist, titled Le Port de La Rochelle (1915), mysteriously disappeared from its frame in the Musée de Beaux-Arts in Nancy, north-east France. Investigators later found out that three men removed the canvas using a box cutter before rolling it up, hiding it under a raincoat, and walking out of the museum in broad daylight.
François Pérain, the Nancy public prosecutor, said the “unsophisticated” crime took everyone by surprise: “It was so simple… They wore headgear but they acted with their faces uncovered, entered by the main entrance and left through the same door.”
The trail for the painting went cold until a year later the painting surfaced in Kyiv when local police raided the home of a suspect linked to an unrelated murder case, who told them it was hidden in a cupboard. The man informed the authorities that Huzhna—who at the time was in an Austrian prison for stealing a Pierre-Auguste Renoir painting in Vienna in 2018—had masterminded the theft. Upon his release, Huzhna was extradited to France in 2020 and Le Port de La Rochelle was returned to the Musée de Beaux-Arts.
The Ukrainian murder suspect, who is in a Kyiv prison, was handed a three-year sentence in absentia by the French court on Tuesday for his role as an accomplice in the Signac case.
Huzhna maintained his innocence and pleaded not guilty on Monday, telling French prosecutors that they had no evidence against him. “I don’t see how I have anything to do with this. You have no proof of your allegations,” he told the court. His lawyer, Samira Boudiba, said: “He’s not on the CCTV, all you can see are three people who cannot be identified. All the video shows is the time the painting was stolen… The fact that he is in France each time a theft takes place is a coincidence, not proof.”
Huzhva reportedly shouted “Slander!” several times in the courtroom, claiming he was the victim of a “conspiracy”.
During the trial, he was also found guilty of stealing a rare book and four other artworks from auction houses across France between 2017 and 2018, including paintings by Eugène Boudin, Galien-Laloue, Giorgio De Chirico, and another by Renoir. The works are still missing.
Another male accomplice—identified from Huzhva’s confiscated phone after his arrest in Vienna—who is also currently imprisoned in Ukraine, was tried in absentia and handed a three-year sentence, while a fourth female suspect remains unidentified.