Three paintings by Picasso, Van Gogh and Gauguin worth a total of £1m were stolen from a Manchester art gallery over the weekend in a "well planned" theft by professional art thieves, police said.
Staff at the Whitworth Gallery only discovered the three works were missing when they turned up for work at about midday yesterday.
The paintings are believed to have been in the same room at the museum, which has a world-renowned collection of 40,000 works by artists ranging from Lucian Freud to Toulouse Lautrec. Detectives said the thieves had broken into the building at some point after 9pm on Saturday to steal the works, probably to order.
A Greater Manchester Police spokesman said: "This was a well-planned theft. We have launched a major inquiry and are now trying to piece together what happened." Neither detectives nor the museum, which is owned by the University of Manchester, were willing to say where or how the thieves had gained entry but a police source added: "It was a professional job. They clearly knew what they were after."
The stolen works, the largest of which measured 39cm by 53cm, are well known and would be unsellable on the open market. Experts said it was unclear why the three watercolours were stolen from among far more valuable works in the same building. The art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon said: "They could have been stolen by naive thieves who will probably destroy them when they see them on every newspaper front page."
The most valuable were thought to be the work by Picasso, a drawing of three skeletal figures entitled Poverty (1903), and the coloured drawing by Van Gogh, Fortifications of Paris with Houses (1878), completed when the artist was 25. The Gauguin, Tahitian Landscape (1891), is a watercolour sketch which, unusually, has been painted on both sides of the paper and also features a sketch of a man's head. The gallery refused to comment on why it had taken so long for the theft to be discovered.