First 'The Scream'. Now 'Blue Dress'. What makes Munch the artist of choice for thieves?

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Guests at the Hotel Refsnes Gods describe a stay there as like spending the night in one's own personal art gallery.

Guests at the Hotel Refsnes Gods describe a stay there as like spending the night in one's own personal art gallery.

Built in 1767 on the banks of the Oslofjord as a rural retreat for an émigré Scot, 400 works are on display, ranging from Edvard Munch to Andy Warhol. With its outstanding collection of contemporary Nordic art, it is considered one of the finest ­ and most accessible ­ private collections in Scandinavia.

This was not lost on the two men who made their way into the hotel's celebrated restaurant on Sunday at 11pm, as guests elsewhere savoured a final drink in the bar. They were looking for works by the Expressionist Munch ­ a visitor to Refsnes Gods when it was still a private home. He had lived and worked near by on the island of Jeløy between 1913 until 1916.

Armed with a crowbar, the two men ripped his 1915 watercolour Blue Dress from its museum mounts along with two lithographs ­ a self-portrait and a portrait of the playwright August Strindberg. They were interrupted by a hotel worker. A spokesman for the local police in Moss, which is 30 miles south of Oslo, said: "They dropped one, and broke the frame and glass, but took the picture."

Yesterday, less than 24 hours later, the paintings were retrieved during a police raid in Oslo and several people ­ including Norwegians and others of "a foreign background" ­ were arrested.

The fact that the thieves had taken the less valuable works on display had already indicated that the police were not dealing with master criminals here. But they are in good company: the Norwegian art world is still reeling from the unsolved thefts of two of the artist's masterpieces, The Scream and Madonna, from the Munch Museum in Oslo in August.

That raid ­ which was a rather more professional job ­ was seen as a national catastrophe. It was carried out at gunpoint in daylight in front of frightened tourists. The museum was heavily criticised for its laxity and questions were raised over the ease of access afforded visitors to the museum which holds some of the 20th century's most important pictures.

The stolen paintings were valued at £50m and, despite intensive police investigations and a major international effort to trace them, they have not been recovered. Police believe the raid was carried out by members of an organised Norwegian gang, possibly as a "kudos crime" designed to impress rival east European criminals. They fear the pictures may have been destroyed.

The pieces stolen on Sunday were of a lower artistic order. By far the most important was the watercolour, valued by Norwegian art dealers at £90,000. The self-portrait was said to be worth £30,000 and the picture of Strindberg £25,000.

Police have not ruled out a link with the August raid. A more likely explanation is that the crime was a "copycat" with "amateur" thieves trying their luck after learning of the artist's value following publicity around the earlier raid.

The hotel's owner, Widar Salbuvik, said the works were among seven on show by Munch, although they were not the most expensive. "It seems to be a fashion among criminals to steal Munch," said Mr Salbuvik. "How professional is it to steal art? Great value, big risk and hard to sell. They would have to be very slow in the head to do it."

But he said the hotel remained committed to displaying the art. It was important to his guests to see it "rather than soft-core porn on TV", he insisted.

But, as in the summer, security questions remain unanswered. The Munch Museum was closed to have a £4.3m security upgrade, following the thefts there. It is due to reopen in the summer. Mr Salbuvik said that the alarm system at the Refsnes Gods was only activated when the hotel closed for the night. There were no security cameras installed.

According to Dick Ellis, the former head of Scotland Yard's Art and Antiques Squad, if the thieves had tried to sell on the retrieved artworks, they would not have recovered more than 10 to 15 per cent of their auction value.

Last year the value of international art thefts plateaued, despite a number of high-profile raids. Paradoxically, obscure pieces by major artists can fetch more money than better known works, because they are less recognisable and so easier to sell. Prolific artists such as Munch and Picasso remain lucrative targets for art thieves, said Mr Ellis.

Comments