A pounds 60m art heist - and it's legal

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IT WAS A classic art heist. Late in the afternoon a man walked calmly into the busy Musee d'Art Ancien in Brussels and in minutes walked out with 10 paintings worth an estimated pounds 60m.

But this thief was a legally appointed bailiff, and the seizure effected on paper only. The bailiff, accompanied by Belgian television, was acting on behalf of 45 clients who claim they have never been compensated by the Belgian state when property they owned in Zaire, the country's former colony, was nationalised in the 1970s. Belgian bailiffs have a reputation for heavy-handedness, but the lawyer for the aggrieved clients said he had no choice: in 20 years the Belgian state had failed to take action.

The Minister of Culture, Jean Maurice Dehousse, is outraged - not least because the pictures 'stolen' include works by Roger de la Pasture, Hans Memling, Bosch, Van der Goes, Colin de Coster and two by Rubens, none of whom, he says, have ever been influenced by Africa. 'This is downright provocative - lawyers are supposed to work with the justice system not the media. Flemish primitives or even Walloon surrealists have nothing to do with Zaire,' he blustered.

Hendrik Pieters told television reporters that he had lost 2bn Belgian francs when the Zairean President Mobuto Sese Seko nationalised foreign assets in the early 1970s. The Belgian government was ordered to pay some 500m francs compensation but has, so far, not produced a penny.

But all is not lost. The Belgian state has a chance to buy the paintings back on Monday, when they are to be put up for auction.