Picasso taken for ride by thief with pony-tail

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Last seen in the Wimbledon: one painting, immediately recognisable as a Picasso, one pony-tailed thief clutching a sawn-off shotgun, one taxi driver holding an empty picture frame and a pounds 10 tip.

Tete de Femme, an impressionistic portrait of Picasso's Yugoslavian mistress Dora Maar, painted in 1939, and priced at pounds 600,000, started yesterday on the walls of Lefevre Galley, in London's Mayfair. It was taken in 35 seconds by the man who left in a hijacked taxi, holding pursuing gallery staff at bay by pointing the gun from a window.

The painting's destination after the south-west London suburb of Wimbledon was last night puzzling art experts. Mark Dalrymple, loss adjuster for the insurers who had it covered for $1m, said it may have been stolen to order. It is thought too distinctive to off-load any other way.

The theft occurred when the man, who was described as white, aged about 28, with brown hair in a pony tail, walked into the gallery in Bruton Street. He made no attempt to avoid the shop's surveillance camera, which caught him in full flight.

Jacquie Cartwright, a sales assistant, said: "He looked like an art student. He asked the price of the painting and I answered him.

"Then he told me he had a shotgun and he wanted the picture.

"I said: 'I beg your pardon'.

"He said: 'Get it off the wall for me', and I said I couldn't. I told him to get it himself, so he did and then he ran out."

He was last seen by the cab driver, who was left a pounds 10 tip and the picture frame on the back seat, and contacted the police.

Mark Summers, the managing director of the gallery, said: "It didn't seem that he took the picture at random."

The oil painting is 60cm by 45cm large. The insurers have offered pounds 50,000 reward. It had been recently bought by the gallery. Previously it had been owned by the Picasso family collection. It's theft is one of a string of audacious raids on galleries around the world.