Priceless art treasures stolen as Rio parties

Thieves use crowds as cover to make off with classic paintings by Picasso, Matisse, Monet, and Dali

Jonathan Thompson
Sunday 26 February 2006 01:00 GMT

Four armed men took advantage of the heaving Rio Carnival this weekend to steal world-renowned paintings from an art gallery and vanish into a huge crowd of revellers.

The paintings, including a Picasso, a Matisse and a Monet, were stolen from the Chacara do Ceu museum in central Rio de Janeiro as the city-wide annual party was in full swing on the surrounding streets.

An official from the museum, in the Santa Teresa district, said the stolen paintings included Pablo Picasso's The Dance, Claude Monet's Marine, Henri Matisse's The Luxembourg Gardens, and Salvador Dali's The Two Balconies.

The gunmen, who were also said to be carrying grenades, entered the museum in broad daylight as a samba band performed on the street outside.

They overpowered guards before forcing them to turn off internal security cameras. Shortly afterwards, they vanished back into the huge mass of people still following the band.

"They [the gunmen] took advantage of a Carnival parade passing by the museum and disappeared into the crowd," said Vera de Alencar, director of the government-supported museum.

The paintings were considered the most valuable pieces at the museum, but their exact worth was not immediately available, said Thais Isel, a spokeswoman for Rio's Public Safety Secretariat. Museum officials did not confirm how many paintings were taken.

The thieves also made off with the belongings of several visitors, including a number of foreign tourists who had been in the museum at the time. These included at least four English-speaking visitors, thought to be two Australians and a couple from New Zealand, it was later reported.

Last night, Brazilian police were taking emergency measures to prevent the paintings leaving the country. One security source speculated that the robbery appeared to have been carefully planned by specialists, potentially from an international gang.

Carnival celebrations in Brazil officially began on Friday and continue until Tuesday. The globally renowned pre-Lenten party is notorious for petty crime, with large numbers of purse-snatchers and pickpockets mingling with the closely packed crowds.

"When we catch them [the thieves)] they always say, 'but they're so easy, so easy'," said Ricardo Andreiolo, chief of the city's tourist police.

Rio is among the world's most violent cities. But the violence rarely spills out of the favelas - or shanty towns - and into the richer tourist districts.

State officials have strengthened police patrols, created a special tourist police department and even deployed cameras along the more popular beaches like Copacabana and Ipanema, where much of the petty theft takes place.

Last year, tourism officials even started distributing leaflets warning visitors not to flaunt their cameras, mobile phones or expensive watches, to stay off of dark streets and away from the beach at night.

The Rio state tourism secretary, Sergio Ricardo Almeida, said recently that the city's reputation for street crime was undeserved: "There's paranoia in the national press and that contaminates the foreign press," Almeida said. "When a tourists gets robbed in Madrid, that doesn't make the papers."

Many tourists feel getting robbed is a rite of passage. A popular T-shirt on sale in the city reads: "I left my heart in Rio, and my watch and my camera and my wallet."

Last month, more than 30 British tourists were held at gunpoint and robbed while on a luxury horse-racing holiday in Brazil. They were being driven from Rio airport to the city when their bus was held up by four gunmen.and their valuables taken.

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