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Old Masters were hidden under bed by thief's lover

THE TRIAL of the gang charged with stealing two Van Goghs and a Cezanne from an Italian state art gallery has begun in Rome with an unexpected romantic twist.

A young woman told the court that she transported and hid the three stolen masterpieces under her bed, all for the love of a convicted thief 20 years her senior.

Annarita Sinti, 26, said she now realised she had been used by her co- accused Eneo Ximenes, who is said to have masterminding the operation, but that he had saved her life and the pair hoped to marry as soon as the trial was over.

The Gardener and Woman of Arles (Portrait of Madame Ginoux), believed to have been painted by Van Gogh in 1890 soon before his suicide, and Jourdan's Cottage, believed to be Cezanne's last work in oils, were the three priceless paintings stolen from the National Gallery of Modern Art in Rome. Ms Sinti is one of eight people on trial for the theft.

Police claim that on the night of 19 May 1998, three thieves remained in the museum after closing. They held three wardens at gunpoint, tied and gagged them and locked them in a lavatory. The robbers then de- activated security cameras, took the art pieces and walked out.

After a two-month police investigation, Ms Sinti was arrested. So were her father, who runs a bar in Rome, Mr Ximenes, four others and a gallery employee. One painting was recovered in Turin, the other two in Ms Sinti's apartment in Rome. Six of the eight accused admit involvement.

Ms Sinti, whose lawyer said she suffered from depression and anorexia, said it was love at first sight when Mr Ximenes arrived at her father's home on the recommendation of a friend in Belgium. "I had stopped eating but with him I began to live again. He is my lifeline," she said. She has been visiting Mr Ximenes every week in Rome's grim Regina Coeli jail.