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Eight men went on trial in Paris on Wednesday accused of stealing a Banksy artwork, painted on the door of the Bataclan concert venue to honour 90 people killed in 2015 attacks on the city.
The seven French defendants and one Italian are suspected of removing the metal door from the building before dawn in January 2019 and transporting it to Italy.
It was decorated in 2018 with the stencil of a mournful young woman by the anonymous British street artist, giving it an estimated value of up to one million euros ($1.1m).
A white van with concealed number plates was seen stopping on January 26 in 2019 in an alleyway running alongside the Bataclan in central Paris.
Many concert-goers fled via the same alley when the Bataclan became the focal point of France’s worst-ever attacks since World War II – in November 2015, when and ISIL (ISIS) armed group fighters killed 130 people at a string of sites across the capital.
Three of those on trial, in their 30s, confessed to the theft when they were arrested, though two said they were only carrying out the orders of a man who was not present when the door was removed, Mehdi Meftah.
Meftah, 41, who founded a luxury brand of T-shirts embellished with 18-carat gold bars after claiming to win 7.5 million euros ($8m) in the lottery, told police that his friend Kevin G, also on trial, presented him with the Banksy unannounced.
This version was confirmed by Kevin G, one of the three believed to have removed the door, but contested by the other two.
Four more defendants, aged between 31 and 58, are accused of transporting the stolen artwork.
On the morning of the theft, three masked men climbed out of the van, cut the hinges with angle grinders powered by a generator and left within 10 minutes, in what an investigating judge called a “meticulously prepared” heist.
A burglary of a generator and angle grinders from a DIY shop in France’s southeastern Isere region 12 days earlier put police on the trail of three of the suspects, who were recorded talking about the art theft when their phones were tapped.
Phone records showed the men were in Paris on the night of the heist.
Investigators pieced together the door’s route across France and into Italy, where it was found in June 2020 on a farm in Sant’Omero, near the Adriatic coast.
“The symbolism [of the theft] is what it is, and no one is trying to play it down,” said Margaux Durand-Poincloux, one of the defence lawyers. “But in my client’s case, it remains an aggravated theft in which he did not decide the target.”
In a separate court case, the city-owned operator of the concert hall is fighting the return of the Banksy-decorated door to the owners of the building.
Works by the street artist, often bearing a political message, have fetched millions of dollars at auction.
The sole surviving attacker, Salah Abdeslam, is facing a life term in prison at a marathon trial, which opened in Paris last September, with prosecutors set to make final arguments and sentencing requests this week.