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Ukrainian man goes on trial in France over theft of £1.3m painting found in Kyiv | France

A Ukrainian is on trial in France for allegedly orchestrating the theft of a €1.5m (£1.3m) painting found in a house in Kyiv a year after it disappeared from a museum in Nancy.

Paul Signac’s Porte de la Rochelle went missing from the Museum of Fine Arts in Nancy, northeast France, in 2018.

Museum staff were stunned to find an empty frame on the wall after three people removed the canvas with a utility knife, rolled it up and left the museum, hiding it under a raincoat one of them was wearing.

The 46-by-55-cm painting seemed to disappear without a trace until a year later when Kyiv police ransacked the home of a suspect allegedly involved in the murder. As they ransacked his home in the Ukrainian capital, an unnamed suspect told them there was a valuable painting in the closet and advised them to handle it with care.

During interrogation, he is said to have pointed the finger at compatriot Vadim Guzhva, 64, who was in an Austrian prison at the time after being convicted of stealing a Renoir painting in Vienna in November 2018. Khuzva was extradited to France after his release in June 2020.

Huzhva, an art collector, has previously denied any involvement in the theft and claims he was set up. In court on Monday, he said: “I don’t see what I have to do with this. You have no proof of your claims.”

His lawyer, Samira Budiba, told Le Parisien newspaper: “He is not on the surveillance tape. All you see is three people who cannot be identified. All videos show the time the painting was stolen, but that’s about it. He is accused of stealing a painting in France, which is strange. Without going into the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, he says it’s a conspiracy.”

Gujva has also been accused of other thefts, including the disappearance of a Renoir painting from a French auction house in the Paris area in 2017, the theft of two works of art from an auction house in Versailles, and a painting from Béziers in southern France in 2018.

“What surprised us was how simple the theft was. It was so easy,” said François Perin, the Nancy prosecutor, when the Signac painting was returned to Nancy two years ago. “They were wearing headdresses, but they acted with open faces, entered through the main entrance and exited through the same door.”

Painted in 1915, Le Port de La Rochelle is part of the Signac series of the ports of La Rochelle, Marseille, Saint-Tropez and Rotterdam.

The trial is expected to last two days.

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