PARIS -- Wearing ski masks and dark clothes, three men walked into a private museum in Zurich, Switzerland, shortly before it closed Sunday afternoon and in three minutes made off with four of its most valuable paintings, Swiss police said yesterday. The works by Cezanne, Degas, van Gogh and Monet were valued at about $163.2 million.
While one of the intruders held museum employees at gunpoint, the other two grabbed the Impressionist treasures, which were hanging together in the large exhibition hall of the E. G. Buhrle Collection.
"These people knew exactly where to go," Lukas Gloor, the museum's director, said in a phone interview. "They entered the room with our most valuable paintings and simply emptied two walls."
The burglars fled the lakeside neighborhood in a white van with a painting possibly sticking out of the back, said Judith Hoedel, a police spokeswoman. One of the three spoke German with a heavy Slavic accent, she said.
It was among the largest art thefts in European history and perhaps the most high-profile since Edvard Munch's "The Scream" was stolen in Norway in 2004. The Zurich art's value appears less than that of the benchmark heist in 1990 of 12 works from Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. At the time, that art was said to be worth $200 million. Although many of the paintings spirited out of the Gardner have been recovered, a priceless Vermeer, called "The Concert," is still missing.
The Zurich works came from the collection of the late Emil Georg Buhrle, a German industrialist based in Switzerland who built his fortune selling arms to both the Nazis and Allied forces during World War II.
A one-time art student, Buhrle amassed one of Europe's great Impressionist and early modern collections after the war, acquiring in 1948 the celebrated "Boy in the Red Waistcoat" - the Paul Cezanne painting stolen Sunday. In 1960, four years after he died, Buhrle's family created a foundation in his name and opened a museum in a 19th-century villa next to his home, according to the museum's Web site,
The museum is offering a reward of $90,000 for information leading to the recovery of the paintings. Also stolen were Degas' "Ludovic Lepic and his Daughters," Monet's "Poppy Field at Vetheuil" and Van Gogh's "Blooming Chestnut Branches."
Gloor said it's difficult to place a value on such paintings: "The numbers we're using are insurance values on the idea that you could actually replace these with a substitute. Which you can't. So it's all just theoretical."
Police are investigating whether a theft last week in Switzerland of two paintings by Pablo Picasso are related to Sunday's crime.
Experts say some thieves seek ransom from museums; others attempt to collect a reward from the museum's insurance company; and some are willing to get a fraction of the art's value by selling to an unscrupulous dealer.
Some thieves have been known to use art as collateral for a drug or arms deal, according to Chris Marinello, general counsel of the Art Loss Register, a London-based organization that records art thefts and helps retrieve stolen paintings.
Geraldine Baum writes for the Los Angeles Times.