Bungling art thieves let masterpiece slip

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The Independent Online

Run in, grab the paintings, jump in the car and go. After weeks of planning and hours of surveillance, it all came down to a few seconds and a handful of simple tasks for the team of Belgian art robbers. And they still blew it.

The first stage went smoothly for the three masked raiders who burst into a museum in Ghent and ripped two works by the Flemish master Peter Paul Rubens from the wall.

But then it all went wrong. They did manage to reach the getaway car with one of the paintings ­ but museum staff dismissed it as "unmarketable". The other, described as "priceless", was left on the floor of the museum after one of the criminals dropped it. No wonder Hercule Poirot went abroad for a challenge.

While police were looking for the missing 17th century sketch ­ and the art robbers were looking for a replacement for their butter-fingered accomplice ­ staff at the Fine Arts Museum were checking security arrangements to ensure there was no repeat of the attempt to steal the more famous Rubens original.

The museum curator, Robert Hoozee, said Flagellation of Christ was not badly damaged when the robber dropped it during the hasty withdrawal. The painting was part of a series of works Rubens contributed to, representing the "15 Mysteries of the Rosary" painted around 1617.

The robbers managed to escape with the lesser valued The Hunt for the Caledonian Wild Boar, one of two versions of the canvas in existence and valued at about £120,000.

Mr Hoozee said the oil sketch was so closely linked to Rubens that it was practically unmarketable.