Two of Four Stolen Masterworks Recovered in Zurich

By John Ward Anderson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, February 20, 2008

PARIS, Feb. 19 -- Two masterworks that were stolen from a Zurich art museum last week were found in good condition Monday in an unlocked car parked outside a nearby psychiatric hospital, Swiss police said Tuesday. Two other paintings are still missing, they said.

The recovered paintings -- Claude Monet's "Poppies near V¿theuil" (1879) and Vincent van Gogh's "Blossoming Chestnut Branches" (1890) -- were found by a 56-year-old parking lot attendant who contacted police about 4 p.m. Monday. The attendant reported a "suspicious white vehicle with two pictures on the back seat" at the University of Zurich Psychiatric Hospital, police said in a statement.

The two paintings, which Swiss police said have a combined value of about $64 million, were among four stolen on Feb. 10 by three masked men in a brazen daylight robbery at a private villa housing the E.G. Buehrle Collection, a trove of French impressionist and post-impressionist masterpieces.

As a man with a pistol guarded the door and kept fearful employees on the floor, the two others grabbed four paintings worth $163 million from a nearby exhibit hall. The three then hauled the paintings to a white car parked outside and sped away.

It was Switzerland's largest-ever art robbery.

Police said the car in which the two paintings were found Monday was a white Opel Omega with stolen license plates, but it was unclear if it also was the getaway vehicle. It was not known how long the car had been parked in front of the hospital, which is less than a mile from the museum, the police statement said.

"Museum Director Lukas Gloor carefully assessed the two paintings and confirmed that they were indeed the stolen oil paintings," the statement said. Zurich's city police commandant, Philipp Hotzenkoecherle, told reporters that the paintings were found still under the museum's display glass.

"I am incredibly relieved that two paintings have returned," Gloor said at a news conference. "We're very happy that both the paintings are in absolutely impeccable shape."

The museum had offered a $91,000 reward for information leading to the recovery of the four paintings, but neither police nor museum officials would say Tuesday if the parking lot attendant, who was not identified, would collect part of it.

Police said they are continuing to search for the two other stolen paintings, "Count Lepic and His Daughters" (1871) by Edgar Degas and "The Boy in the Red Vest" (1888) by Paul C¿zanne, which is considered the museum's most prized possession.

"We don't know if the other two paintings are still in the country," Zurich police spokesman Michael Wirz said in a telephone interview. "The only thing I can tell you is that the robbers were not stopped, and we are still looking for them."

Researcher Corinne Gavard contributed to this report.

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