Gang behind $55m art heist captured in FBI sting

David Randall
Sunday 18 September 2005 00:00
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Four men - two Iraqis, a Swede and a Gambian - were arrested in a raid on a Copenhagen hotel as they offered to sell a Rembrandt self-portrait worth $42m (£23m) to an FBI agent posing as an art buyer. They were asking a mere $100,000. The painting was recovered, and police in Los Angeles then revealed that the Renoir - Young Parisian, which depicts a girl and is worth an estimated $13m - had been found by the FBI at an undisclosed location in the city six months ago.

The melodrama in this dowdy Danish hotel brings to a conclusion a story that began half a decade ago at the waterfront National Museum in Stockholm. Just before closing time one day in December 2000, an armed and masked gang entered the building. While one man brandished a sub-machine gun in the lobby, two others seized the paintings from the second floor. As they escaped, scattering spikes on the road to delay pursuers, two cars exploded nearby, creating a diversion. The men then made off in a small boat.

The third painting stolen in that heist, Renoir's Conversation, was recovered by Swedish police in 2001, but the other two remained lost. It was an investigation of an international crime ring operating in southern California that led authorities to the other Renoir, and thence, ultimately, to the Rembrandt. The FBI declined to reveal further details about how the Renoir had been recovered, saying there was an ongoing investigation into related crimes. Authorities said a criminal syndicate smuggled the painting through Los Angeles airport several years ago. The agency kept the recovery of their Renoir secret until Friday to aid the recovery of the Rembrandt.

Tomas Rosander, Sweden's consulate general in Los Angeles, called the paintings a national treasure. He said most Swedes visit the museum at some point to view the works of art. In Copenhagen, Chief Superintendent Per Larsen said the Rembrandt was undamaged and still in its original frame.

Renoir's Young Parisian was displayed for the media in Los Angeles. It has a large scratch in its varnish, but experts said it was superficial and could be fixed. Scott Schaefer, curator of paintings at the J Paul Getty Museum, was brought in to authenticate the painting. He said he wasn't surprised the Renoir made it to California. "If you were a thief, it would seem to me you would go where the money is, and Los Angeles is apparently a place where there is a lot of money and people buy a lot of art."

Meanwhile, back where the whole story began in Stockholm, Gorel Cavalli-Bjorkman, head of research at Sweden's National Museum, said: "I jumped with joy! I had expected it would be recovered at some point, I was just hoping we would get it back before I retired."

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