For 20 years, Willem Cordia had relaxed from overseeing the shipping-to-textiles business empire that earned him the nickname the “Onassis of Rotterdam” by becoming one of the world’s largest art collectors, amassing 250 works by some of the most illustrious names in painting.
In an act of cruel irony, it took audacious thieves a matter of moments to put a £250m hole in that carefully-crafted portfolio when seven canvases by artists from Picasso to Lucian Freud were ripped from the walls of an art gallery in the Dutch mega-port shortly after 3am on Monday night.
The theft, which ranks as one of the biggest in recent history, took place just days after the first ever large-scale exhibition of works from Mr Cordia’s private collection - known as the Triton Foundation - had opened at Rotterdam’s Kunsthal Museum.
While experts last night said it was likely the paintings would be held to ransom, Dutch police were still trying to piece together just how the thieves had entered the gallery, beating a top-of-the-range security system and leaving behind no obvious trace of a forced entry before swiping the works, some of which could be seen from the street.
By the time officers arrived at city centre building following a call from the museum’s alarm system monitoring company, the art burglars had long gone, along with their £250m haul.
Roland Ekkers, a spokesman for Rotterdam Police, said: “The alarm system in the Kunsthal was supposed to be state of the art. But somehow the people responsible for this found a way in and a way out and they found time to take seven paintings. So that’s something that is part of our investigation right now.”
Indeed, it seems the targets were also chosen well. The stolen canvases were among the most eye-catching and valuable in the Triton Foundation collection - Pablo Picasso’s 1971 “Harlequin Head”; Claude Monet’s 1901 “Waterloo Bridge, London” and “Charing Cross Bridge, London”, Paul Gaugin’s 1898 “Girl in Front of Open Window”; Henri Matisse’s 1919 “Reading Girl in White and Yellow”; Meyer de Haan’s 1890 “Self-Portrait”; and Lucian Freud’s 2002 “Woman with Eyes Closed.”
The paintings were part of a blockbuster show to mark the 20th anniversary of the Kunsthal, which does not have a permanent collection and operates with rotating temporary exhibitions. More than 150 works - comprising two thirds of the Cordia collection - were on display.
Publicity material for the exhibition, which was immediately closed down yesterday, said: “This private collection has developed into one with an international reputation and comprises representative works by the most important and influential artists of the late 19th century to the present day.”
Experts said the raid is the latest reverse to a trend which had seen a decline in the sort of daring raid on the world’s museums epitomised by the most expensive art theft in history committed in 1990 at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. The 13 stolen works, including paintings by Rembrandt and Vermeer and worth £300m at the time, have never been recovered.
Improved security has seen the percentage of loss recorded by insurers on art work premiums fall from an average of 52 per cent in the last 15 years to its current level of 35 per cent but a spate of high-profile thefts and concerns about lax security could see premiums creep back up.
Richard Nicholson, executive director at specialist insurance brokers Willis, said: “These paintings will be completely unsellable on the open market. But the idea that these thefts are carried out to order for some tycoon is a bit a myth.
“It is much more likely they will be held to ransom to extract a payment from the insurers. Even then, this can be difficult. In a lot of countries, including Britain, such payments are illegal unless agreed with police and prosecutors. There is nothing glamorous about this - at the end of the food chain you find some pretty unsavoury characters.”
The trail from recent art thefts has often led to Eastern European gangsters, with a Cezanne stolen from a Swiss museum being recovered in Belgrade earlier this year and an Albanian crime network implicated in other thefts.
The Cordia family did not respond to requests for a comment from The Independent yesterday but the Rotterdam theft is likely to be felt keenly. Mr Cordia died last year aged 70 after building up his collection with his wife, Marijke, while travelling between their homes in Switzerland and New York.
The entrepreneur, whose £300m fortune put him among the top 100 richest people in the Netherlands, built up his empire after starting as an apprentice crewman on a Rotterdam-based shipping line, slowly acquiring stakes in companies until he achieved a wealth that led to comparisons with the Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis.
His art foundation, which also includes works by Van Gogh, Piet Mondrian and Yves Klein, lends works to museums all over the world but had until this month drawn back from large-scale exhibitions.