ZURICH, Switzerland – It was one of the biggest art robberies in European history, police said Monday.
Armed and masked, three men entered a private Zurich museum just before closing Sunday and made off with paintings by Cezanne, Degas, van Gogh and Monet worth 180 million Swiss francs (US$163.2 million; euro112.4 million).
Calling it a "spectacular art robbery," police asked witnesses to help reconstruct the robbers' getaway from the E.G. Buehrle Collection, a private museum for Impressionism that has had its own troubled history with stolen art.
"This is an entirely new dimension in criminal culture," Zurich police spokesman Marco Cortesi said, calling it the largest art robbery in Switzerland's history and one of the biggest ever in Europe.
The three men, wearing ski masks and dark clothing, entered the Buehrle museum a half-hour before closing Sunday. While one used a pistol to force museum personnel to the floor, the two others went and collected the four paintings from the exhibition hall, police said.
One of the men spoke German with a Slavic accent, police said. They loaded the paintings into a white vehicle parked out front. Police, asking for witness to come forward, said the paintings may have been sticking out of the trunk as the robbers made their getaway.
A reward of 100,000 francs (about US$90,000 or euro62,500) was offered for information leading to the recovery of the paintings — Claude Monet's "Poppy field at Vetheuil," Edgar Degas' "Ludovic Lepic and his Daughter," Vincent van Gogh's "Blooming Chestnut Branches," and Paul Cezanne's "Boy in the Red Waistcoat."
The FBI estimates the stolen art market at US$6 billion (euro4.1 billion) annually, and Interpol has about 30,000 stolen works listed in its database.
While only a fraction of stolen art is ever found, such thefts are rare because of the intense police work that follows and the fact that works are so difficult to sell.
"It's extremely hard if not impossible to sell these works," said Michaela Derra of Ketterer Kunst GmbH, a Munich-based purveyor of modern and contemporary art. "Maybe they think they can blackmail the insurance and get money for the paintings in return. But this is all speculation."
Police said the museum has not received any such demands.
Steve Thomas, head of art law at Irell & Manella LLP's Los Angeles office, said it was unlikely the latest robbery was commissioned by a private collector looking to stash art in a secret location. He said the motive was most likely an insurance ransom, a reward or leverage for someone that could be facing prosecution for even bigger crimes.
"As values have skyrocketed, art has become more of a target, and we are seeing more and more major art thefts around the world," he said. But funding for art museums, particularly in security, has not kept pace. "Even with the best of museums with the best of security, with guards standing there, people still manage to get away with the art."
Buehrle, a German-born industrialist who provided arms to the Third Reich during World War II, amassed one of Europe's greatest private collections in the aftermath of the war. He also owned at least 13 art works at the war's end that were included on British specialist Douglas Cooper's "looted art list," which was used to recover pieces stolen from Jews by the Nazis.
But a five-year, Swiss government study said Buehrle also acquired an unknown amount of so-called "flight art" — works smuggled out of Axis-controlled areas by Jews and sold at rock-bottom prices to avoid confiscation by the Nazis.
"We couldn't examine the flight art acquisitions of Emil G. Buehrle systematically," the 2001 study into Switzerland's wartime cooperation with the Nazis said. But it added: "In general, there was more flight art available than looted art" and that this was reflected in collections such as Buehrle's.
Daniel Heller — author of "Between Company, Politics and Survival: Emil G. Buehrle and the Machine Tool Factory Oerlikon, Buehrle & Co. 1924-1945" — said Buehrle also repurchased 77 paintings after the war from a Jewish dealer, when the Swiss high court ruled that they had been stolen.
The museum's catalog refers to those pieces as "acquired in 1951 from a private French collection," according to Heller. The collection is housed in a villa adjoining Buehrle's former home where he had stored art before his death in 1956.
"We are happy that no employees or visitors were hurt," museum director Lukas Gloor.
Gloor said the robbers stole four of the collection's most important paintings, but that they appeared to have taken the first four they came to, leaving even more valuable paintings hanging in the same room.
The museum also owns Auguste Renoir's "Little Irene" and Edgar Degas' "Little Dancer," but Gloor said the sheer weight of the paintings probably made it impossible for the robbers to make off with more. The stolen paintings were hung behind glass, and a security alarm went off as soon as they were touched, he said at a news conference.
Three other versions of the Cezanne painting — perhaps the most famous of those stolen — exist in the National Gallery in Washington, the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia.
Gloor said its value alone is estimated at 100 million francs (US$90 million; euro62.5 million).
The van Gogh painting, he said, has special value because it was painted in the last six weeks of the Dutch master's life.
Switzerland boasts a large number of outstanding art collections, some of which have been hit by thefts and robberies over the years.
Last week, Swiss police reported two Pablo Picasso paintings were stolen from an exhibition near Zurich. The two oil paintings — "Tete de cheval" ("Head of horse") and Verre et pichet ("Glass and pitcher") — had been on loan from the Sprengel Museum in Hannover, Germany.
Cortesi said Zurich police were pursuing the possibility that the Picasso theft was connected with the latest robbery.
In another robbery at the end of the 1980s, three armed men made off with 21 Renaissance paintings worth hundreds of millions of dollars from a Zurich art gallery. Stolen works included some by Jan Mertens the younger, Jan Steen, Willem van Aelst and Dirk Hals. The case was made public in 1989 when FBI agents in New York arrested two Belgians and recovered stolen paintings.
In 1994, seven Picasso paintings worth an estimated 52.4 million francs (then US$44 million) were stolen from a Zurich gallery. They were recovered in 2000. A Swiss man and two Italians were jailed for the theft. The stolen paintings included Picasso's "Seated Woman," and "Christ of Montmartre." The two pictures had been stolen from the gallery once before, in 1991.