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Swiss police say 2 of 4 stolen Impressionist paintings recovered in good shape

20 February 2008

ZURICH – Two of the four Impressionist paintings stolen from a private museum in a CHF180 million armed robbery have been recovered undamaged from a car parked at a mental hospital, authorities said.

There was no word on whether a ransom was paid for the paintings by Claude Monet and Vincent van Gogh, which together are worth CHF70 million, Zurich police spokesman Marco Cortesi said Tuesday.

The other two paintings taken February 10 from the EG Buehrle Collection – by Paul Cezanne and Edgar Degas – remained missing, police said.

“I am incredibly relieved that two paintings have returned,” museum director Lukas Gloor told a news conference. “We’re very happy that both the paintings are in absolutely impeccable shape.”

“But we must not forget,” he added, “that two more paintings of our collection are still missing, including our collection’s landmark ‘Boy in the Red Waistcoat.”‘

That painting, by Cezanne, alone was worth CHF100 million.

The remaining painting is Degas’ “Ludovic Lepic and his Daughter,” worth about CHF10 million.

“The most valuable one and the least valuable one are still missing,” said Gloor.

Art experts have suggested that the robbers were taking advantage of what appears to be an easy mark – a low-security museum – without knowing about the paintings or how difficult it can be to sell such well-known art works if they are stolen.

“The robbery was not done with knowledge about art,” Gloor said. “It’s striking that the two largest (paintings) returned.”

Gloor said he suspected that the robbers abandoned the two paintings because their big size complicates moving them.

The robbers took the first four paintings they came to when they raided the museum shortly before closing time on a Sunday afternoon. Although the most valuable painting was among the ones they took, they left behind the second most precious picture in the room, Cezanne’s “Self Portrait with Palette,” insured for CHF90 million.

The two recovered paintings – Monet’s “Poppy field at Vetheuil” and van Gogh’s “Blooming Chestnut Branches” – were still under the glass behind which they were displayed in the museum, Gloor said.

The two paintings will be brought back to the museum in the coming days, he said.

The pictures were identified as authentic by Gloor after a thorough inspection, police said.

AXA Art Insurance AG, a Cologne, Germany-based company that specializes in insuring museums, said the robbery and the theft of two Picasso paintings nearby a few days earlier underscored “a huge and increasing threat to museums worldwide.”

Museums should take steps to improve their security, AXA Art said.

“Successful robberies are usually characterized by easy access to objects and quick escape routes,” a statement said, adding that it was possible to implement measures to deter thieves.

“Some helpful hints include not hanging important works of art close to entrance and exit doors, tightly securing or encasing important works, not allowing cars to park near building exits and entrances, maintaining video surveillance inside galleries and around museum facilities,” the company said.

The recovered paintings were discovered Monday on the back seat of a white sedan in a parking lot in front of the University Psychiatric Clinic. It was unknown how long the car had been there, police said.

An employee of the clinic making a routine check of the lot noted the car because it was unlocked. Police immediately sealed off the area, examined the car and hauled it away.

Police had said initially that a white vehicle might have been used by the three robbers when they made their escape with the four paintings from the museum. The clinic is about 500m from the museum.

Zurich police spokesman Marco Cortesi said the employee who found the paintings would get a part of the CHF100,000 reward offered for information leading to the recovery of the paintings. He said the exact amount of his reward has yet to be determined.

[Copyright ap 2008]