Art worth £80m snatched in daring Zurich gallery raid

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Robbers wearing ski masks and brandishing pistols stole Impressionist masterpieces by Cezanne, Monet, Degas and Van Gogh worth more than £80m from a Zurich museum in one of the most spectacular art thefts in Europe for decades, police have said.

The three-man gang stole four paintings on Sunday afternoon from the city's Emil Bührle collection, a private museum housing some of the world's most valued Impressionist works, Zurich police confirmed. It was the second theft in less than a week, following the theft of two Picassos from another exhibition nearby.

The robbers entered the gallery in Zollikerstrasse half an hour before closing time, taking staff by surprise. One of the men pulled out a pistol and ordered everyone in the entrance hall to lie on the floor.

"The other two then walked into the museum's ground-floor exhibition hall next door and removed the four valuable paintings," said a police spokesman. They bundled the works into the open boot of a white getaway vehicle parked outside. "They left in such a hurry that we think the paintings may have been sticking out of the boot as they drove off," the spokesman said. "It was a spectacular theft."

Marco Cortesi, chief spokesman for Zurich police, said the robbery was Switzerland's biggest art theft and involved works that were worth even more than the two Edvard Munch paintings snatched by armed men from a museum named after the artist in Oslo in 2004.

The stolen paintings were identified yesterday as Paul Cezanne's Boy in a Red Waistcoat; Claude Monet's Poppy Field at Vetheuil; Edgar Degas' Ludovic Lepic and His Daughter; and Vincent Van Gogh's Blossoming Chestnut Branches. Their value was estimated at about £83.4m, although art experts said it would be impossible to sell such distinctive works on the open market. Police said that they were offering a reward of Sfr100,000 (£46,500) for information leading to the recovery of the works.

However, information about the thieves remained scant. Police could only say that the three were all about 5ft 9in tall and that one of them spoke German with a Slavic accent. Sunday's theft followed the robbery of two Picasso paintings from a cultural centre in the town of Pfäffikon near Zurich on Wednesday evening. The works, Horse's Head, and Glass and Pitcher are each worth millions of pounds and were on loan from Sprengel museum in Hanover, Germany. Police said the thieves had stolen the paintings after the centre had closed for the day and that they set off an alarm as they left. They said it was possible that a white vehicle had also played a role in this incident and that they would investigate whether the two thefts were connected.

Emil Bührle, the founder of the private Zurich museum which was the scene of Sunday's theft, was a wealthy German industrialist during the Nazi era. His Zurich-based Oerlikon plant manufactured cannons and anti-aircraft guns of that name that were used throughout the German armed forces. After the Second World War he bought works which helped him to create one of Europe's most important Impressionist and post-Impressionist art collections.

Lukas Gloor, the director of the museum, housed in Bührle's former villa in Zurich's suburbs, said the four works stolen were the most valuable in the collection. The Bührle collection had been open to public view since 1960 but the director said in future it would only be opened to supervised tour groups who booked in advance.

Other audacious art thefts

* AMSTERDAM, 1991

Twenty paintings worth £260m stolen from Van Gogh Museum. They were later discovered in an abandoned car not far from the museum.

* STOCKHOLM, 1993

Eight works by Picasso and Georges Braque, valued at £30m, were stolen from Modern Museum. Some were recovered.

* STOCKHOLM, 2001

Two paintings by Pierre-Auguste Renoir and a self-portrait by Dutch master Rembrandt taken from National Museum. One Renoir was recovered.

* AMSTERDAM, 2002

Thieves broke through the roof at the Van Gogh Museum to seize two of the artist's most famous oil paintings. A ladder was found leaning against the side of the museum.

* DRUMLANRIG CASTLE, 2003

Raiders posed as tourists to steal Leonardo da Vinci's £25m Madonna with the Yarnwinder.

* OSLO, 2004

Armed robbers stole Edvard Munch's The Scream, and another painting, from the Munch Museum. Both were recovered.

* PARIS, 2007

Two Picassos were stolen from the painter's daughter's house, but recovered.

* SAO PAULO, 2007

Picasso's Portrait of Suzanne Bloch and a canvas by Candido Portinari were stolen from a museum. Both were recovered.

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