The art of stealing a masterpiece

Two pictures by Edvard Munch, worth £50m, were stolen in Oslo yesterday. 'The Scream' has been stolen before, but little was done to improve security. Maxine Frith reports

Monday 23 August 2004 00:00

When two men in balaclavas lifted Edvard Munch's masterpiece The Scream from the wall of an Oslo art gallery yesterday, they humiliated its custodians.

When two men in balaclavas lifted Edvard Munch's masterpiece The Scream from the wall of an Oslo art gallery yesterday, they humiliated its custodians.

Not only is the painting one of the most instantly recognisable images in art, but the ease with which they took it was embarrassing in the extreme ­ no alarms rang as the robbers threatened a security guard with a gun and removed the painting, worth about £30m.

But there was a third cause for embarrassment ­ it was not the first time that one of Munch's masterpieces had been stolen in the Norwegian capital. Ten years ago, in one of the most notorious art heists of the 20th century, a gang broke into Oslo's national gallery in the middle of the night and stole another of Munch's versions of The Scream.

In yesterday's raid at the Munch museum, carried out at 11.10am as visitors looked on, the second of Munch's four versions of the howling figure was stolen.

Its theft will rank as one of the most audacious art crimes of recent times, though it is by no means the most lucrative. In 1990 in Boston two bogus policemen made off with a haul worth £300m from a museum, among them a Manet, three Rembrandts and sketches by Degas. The artworks have not been recovered.

A year later two thieves took 20 Van Goghs ­ including Sunflowers ­ from the museum dedicated to the painter in Amsterdam. That haul too was estimated at £300m, but the missing works were found within minutes.

Yesterday, police launched a massive search by air and on the ground after the robbers, who made their getaway in an Audi car, took The Scream and another Munch painting, Madonna, together worth an estimated £50m.

The Scream has adorned many an angst-ridden teenager's wall. In 1998, it was named the world's most famous and most frequently reproduced painting, eclipsing even the Mona Lisa. Postcards, key rings, cushions, coffee mugs and T-shirts all bear the head-in-hands image of despair that Munch painted in 1893.

As he often did with his work, Munch painted four versions of The Scream, which was part of a series called The Frieze of Life. After his death in 1944, the original Scream went to the national gallery in Oslo, while the main reproduction and another version were given to the Munch museum. A private collector owns the fourth.

More than four million visitors a year flock to the Munch museum to see the painting, which the Norwegian art expert Ben Frija estimates is worth between £25m and £30m. The national gallery's version is valued at around £37m.

In February 1994, a gang broke into the national gallery in the middle of the night and stole the original Scream. Security was so lax that it took them just 50 seconds. They even had time to leave a note on the blank space the painting had once occupied, saying: "Thanks for the poor security."

The thieves struck hours before the Winter Olympic Games opened in Norway, and the loss of the painting made headlines around the world.

Rumours and claims about the theft were soon swirling. An anti-abortion group claimed it was responsible and said the painting would be returned if its gruesome propaganda film was shown on television in Norway.

Others believed the picture had been stolen to order for an art-loving "Mr Big" who wanted it for his private collection. Another theory was that The Scream had been "art-napped" to be used as collateral in the world of organised crime. The reality was somewhat different. Its recovery involved a Scotland Yard detective, a top football player and a sting operation as audacious as the original theft.

Norwegian police called in Charles Hill, a member of the Metropolitan Police's now-defunct art and antiques squad. Mr Hill was an expert in recovering stolen paintings and attention soon turned to Paul Enger, a known art thief who had also played football for the Norwegian club Valerenga.

In 1988, Enger had stolen another Munch painting, called Vampire. Suspicions were further aroused by an announcement that Enger, then 28, put in a local newspaper on the birth of his son. The boy, the message read, had arrived " med et Skrik!" ­ with a scream. Mr Hill travelled to Oslo and pretended to be a fast-talking Californian art dealer acting on behalf of the hugely wealthy Getty Museum in America.

He made contact with an art dealer called Einar-Tore Ulving, who offered to act as a go-between for the gang and Mr Hill. Through this intermediary, the gang demanded £300,000 for the safe return of The Scream.

After weeks of negotiation, Mr Hill, carrying a suitcase full of cash, met the gang at a chalet in a village outside Oslo, and the painting was brought from a cellar for his inspection.

In a recent documentary, Mr Hill recalled: "I have had one or two moments of delight in my career, and one of them was picking up The Scream and realising it was the real thing."

Three months after it was stolen, the painting was returned to the Munch museum. In 1996, Ulving, Enger and two other men were arrested and convicted of the theft. Enger was sentenced to six years in jail but was released in 2000.

In a bizarre twist, Enger got his hands on a Munch legitimately when he paid about £1,500 at auction in 2002 for an unsigned lithograph by the artist. As he left the auction, he was congratulated by the national gallery's former head of security who told him: "It's great that you've actually bought a Munch painting ­ much better than stealing one."

The 1994 theft led to much hand-wringing and recrimination over the lack of security surrounding Norway's most valuable works of art. Yet yesterday's raid bears some uncanny resemblances to the heist 10 years ago. Security at the Munch museum appears to have been deplorably lax.

There were no alarms around the gallery, or anything fixing the paintings in place, and it took the thieves just five minutes to make off with their haul.

Witnesses said the two men simply walked through the gallery with the framed paintings under their arms.

One visitor to the gallery at the time of the theft, Francois Castang, a French radio producer, said: "What is strange is that in this museum, there weren't any means of protection for the paintings ­ no alarm bell. The paintings were simply attached by wire to the walls. All you had to do is pull on the painting hard for the cord to break loose, which is what I saw one of the thieves doing." Witnesses claimed it took more than 15 minutes for police to arrive.

The paintings are considered particularly vulnerable because Munch painted on cardboard, and experts expressed concern this year that The Scream was disintegrating.

The thieves are likely to have difficulty disposing of the painting. Jorunn Christofferson, a spokeswoman for the Munch museum, said: "These are not possible to sell, and it is impossible to put a price tag on them."

She admitted: "It has been a very shocking event and it is very serious for us. We have guards, but when they [the thieves] threaten the guards with a gun there is not much to be done."

Oslo police said they had "mobilised all available resources in the hunt.

Art theft is now said to be a £2.7bn industry, with 287 Picassos, 243 Joan Miros and 210 Marc Chagalls currently missing or stolen. Plus two Munchs.


Harvey McGavin

From pride of place on a gallery wall to complete obscurity in a lock up or safe, the fate of a stolen masterpiece is a spectacular fall from grace. Many of them enter the criminal underworld, never to be seen again.

But of the hundreds of works stolen every year, a few miraculously reappear, with no one arrested and no questions asked. What happens to such paintings, and how they are reunited with their owners was once shrouded in mystery, but victims, the police, the art trade and insurance companies now turn to the Art Loss Register, an organisation established 12 years ago dedicated to tracking down and verifying lost art works.

Its list of 150,000 stolen items - the world's largest searchable database - is the first port of call: 45 per cent of these items are paintings - after drugs and arms sales, stealing art is still big business.

Julian Radcliffe, the register's chairman, said: "Most people who steal these paintings are criminals and if they weren't doing this crime they would be doing another." Since it was established 12 years ago, the register has recovered more than £18m worth of art.

Even though a stolen painting may fetch only a fraction of its value on the black market - 7 per cent, claims one study - that still represents a lucrative trade. A painting may lie low for a years before being reintroduced into the market. Lesser known works are sometimes "surfaced" at auction and described as a version of the original.

But less orthodox methods were used by the Marquess of Bath, who placed an advert in Exchange & Mart and hired a convicted art thief to recover Titian's Rest on the Flight to Venus, left, after it was stolen from his home at Longleat in 1995. He got the painting back.

Mr Radcliffe says most thieves will take anything. In one case, a Swiss man, Stephane Breitwesier, was arrested in 2002. His mother was so furious with him she threw his hoard of 60 paintings - worth £1.2bn - into a canal.


Drumlanrig Castle, Dumfries-shire, 2003

In August last year, two cool-headed thieves joined a tour of Drumlanrig Castle, overpowered their guide and escaped through a kitchen window with Leonardo da Vinci's 16th-century masterpiece Madonna with the Yardwinder, valued at £30m. Despite CCTV footage of the theft, below, and photographs a tourist took of the getaway, neither the thieves nor the painting have been found.

Isabella Stewart Gardner museum, Boston 1990

Late on St Patrick's night 1990, two men dressed as police knocked on the door of the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum in Boston, saying they were investigating reports of a disturbance. The guards let them in and the thieves pounced, tying and gagging the guards. The intruders escaped with a Manet, three Rembrandts, several sketches by Degas and Vermeer's The Concert, above, a haul estimated at £300m. None of the paintings has been recovered.

Mona Lisa, The Louvre, 1911

The Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre in 1911, a theft so audacious that it was not noticed missing until the following day. Two years passed before it was recovered hidden in the bottom of a suitcase in a hotel room in Florence. The thief, Vincenzo Peruggia, a former employee at the Louvre, had smuggled it out under his smock, claiming he wanted to repatriate the painting to Italy.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged in