Egypt police on alert after Van Gogh security 'facade'
Egypt said on Monday it has informed Interpol and placed its police on alert at the country's entry and exit points to try to recover a Van Gogh stolen from a museum with a broken-down security system.
"The search is ongoing. We still haven't found the painting," Culture Minister Faruq Hosni told AFP.
"Police are on alert at the borders and the airports," he said, adding the interior ministry had informed Interpol of Saturday's theft of the Dutch master's painting, which the minister has named as "Poppy Flowers" and is also known as "Vase with Flowers."
"The robber will not be able to sell the painting," he said in an interview with Al-Ahram daily.
A judicial source said the police has arrested the head of the culture ministry's fine arts section, Mohsen Shaalan, three museum security guards and another official on charges of negligence. The museum's woman director has been released on bail.
The painting of the yellow and red flowers in a vase had been stolen before, in 1977, but was recovered the following year.
A Van Gogh expert said the painting was one of 30 floral works made by the Dutch master in the summer of 1886, mainly in Paris where he used to live.
"It is a typical example of those works," said Louis van Tilborgh, a researcher at Amsterdam's Van Gogh Museum. "This is the beginning of Van Gogh becoming more colourful and therefore more modern"
"This is the beginning of Van Gogh as he is known," he said.
With an estimated value of more than 50 million dollars, the latest theft took place in broad daylight from Cairo's Mahmud Khalil museum after it was cut out of its frame.
Al-Ahram reported on Monday that the museum's security system had been out of order since December 2006.
A police official said the theft was discovered around noon when a group of Spanish visitors who went to the room where it was displayed alerted security that it was missing.
Hours after the theft, Hosni announced that the painting had been recovered but he later backtracked, blaming a subordinate, Shaalan, for having passed on "inaccurate" information.
The museum, which has turned into the scene of a crime investigation, was due even before the theft to close within days for renovation, Hosni told AFP.
"The museum was due for closure in several days and its contents, worth hundreds of millions of dollars, were going to be taken to the fine arts sector's safes," he said.
Prosecutor general Abdel Meguid Mahmud acknowledged on Sunday that security measures at the museum were "inadequate," branding them "a facade."
"There are 43 security cameras but only seven are working. Each painting is protected by an alarm but again, none are working," Egypt's prosecutor general told reporters.
Mahmud said the state prosecution had put out a call to increase security after nine paintings were stolen in March 2009 from Mohammed Ali Pasha's palace, a museum on the banks of the Nile in Cairo.
Egypt's antiquities chief, Zahi Hawass, has been ordered to coordinate with the security services to have alarm systems checked at museums throughout the country, newspapers said.
The theft has proven a further embarrassment for Hosni, who conducted a controversial and failed campaign last year to head the United Nations cultural body UNESCO.
Critics have also accused his ministry of negligence in the past, such as when 50 people were killed in a 2005 fire which swept through a theatre. An investigation found the theatre did not comply with fire safety standards.
Hosni offered his resignation after the blaze but President Hosni Mubarak turned it down. Eight culture ministry officials were jailed for the disaster.
© 2010 AFP