By John Ward Anderson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, February 12, 2008
PARIS, Feb. 11 -- Three masked men pulled off one of the largest art heists in decades Sunday, forcing workers at a Swiss museum to lie on the floor while they stole four paintings by impressionist and post-impressionist masters worth an estimated $163 million.
Police and museum officials said the theft of paintings by Paul Cézanne, Edgar Degas, Claude Monet and Vincent van Gogh occurred at about 4:30 p.m. at the E.G. Buehrle Collection in the Swiss financial capital, Zurich.
"We're talking about the biggest ever robbery carried out in Switzerland, even Europe," Zurich police spokesman Mario Cortesi told reporters.
Police said the robbery occurred about 30 minutes before closing time Sunday, when three men wearing dark clothes and ski masks, one of them carrying a handgun, entered the museum's main entrance and ordered people to lie down. As the armed man watched the door and the frightened staff, the two others went into a nearby exhibit hall and removed the paintings.
Museum director Lukas Gloor said at a news conference that the paintings were displayed behind glass panels and that an alarm was triggered as soon as they were touched.
The paintings -- "Poppies near Vétheuil" by Monet, "Count Lepic and His Daughters" by Degas, "Blossoming Chestnut Branches" by van Gogh and "The Boy in the Red Vest" by Cézanne -- were among the most prized in the museum's 200-piece collection, he said.
By his account, the stolen paintings were so well-known that "on the open market, these pictures are unsellable."
"I am devastated," he said. "We had done everything we could to protect the paintings to the best of our knowledge and capability."
Police said the three men lugged the canvases to a white vehicle parked outside and sped away.
They said one of the robbers spoke German with a Slavic accent. A $90,000 reward is being offered for information leading to the recovery of the paintings, they said.
It was the second major art heist in the Zurich area in five days. On Feb. 6, two paintings by Pablo Picasso worth an estimated $4.5 million -- "Tete de Cheval" (Horse's Head) and "Verre et Pichet" (Glass and Pitcher) -- were stolen from a nearby cultural center, where they were on loan from a museum in Germany. Police said they were investigating whether the robberies were related.
The E.G. Buehrle Collection, according to its Web site, is considered one of the most important private collections of 20th-century European art, focusing primarily on French impressionist and post-impressionist masterpieces.
It was amassed in the 1950s by Buehrle, a German-born industrialist who made his fortune selling weapons to the Third Reich during World War II. Today it is housed in an 1886 villa that adjoins Buehrle's former home.
Sunday's robbery ranks among the top art thefts of the past three decades, alongside the 1991 heist of 20 works by van Gogh from a museum in Amsterdam and the 2004 theft of two paintings by Edvard Munch, "The Scream" and "Madonna," from the Munch Museum in Oslo. The paintings stolen in both of those robberies were later recovered.