Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Thieves used brute force in Dutch art heist

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AMSTERDAM, Netherlands -- In Hollywood movies, heists usually feature criminals whose meticulous planning and high-tech equipment are used to avoid detection. But thieves who snatched seven paintings by Picasso, Matisse and Monet worth millions from a gallery in Rotterdam appear to have taken a less glamorous approach, relying mostly on speed and brute force.

In other words, the theft from the Kunsthal exhibition on avant-garde art was more smash and grab than Ocean's 11.

Dutch police said Wednesday they had no suspects in the case, the largest art heist in the country for more than a decade, though an appeal to witnesses had produced more than a dozen tips for investigators to follow up.

Museum director Emily Ansenk rejected criticism of the museum's safeguards. Speaking at a news conference Tuesday evening, she defended Kunsthal's security as "state of the art" and noted that insurance companies had agreed to insure the exhibition.

And yet the thieves got away. The paintings they took are estimated to be worth roughly US$100 million if sold at auction.

The theft raises questions about whether security at the Kunsthal museum, which was designed by renowned Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, was sufficient to protect paintings worth millions of dollars each. Experts said features of the building's design and location itself may have been what initially attracted criminals.

"Speaking as a museum-goer, it's fantastic," museum security expert Ton Cremers said. "Speaking as a security expert, it's a total nightmare."

The gallery is located aside a large road that leads to a roundabout, less than a mile away, linking to highways heading in three directions. The display space where the paintings once hung is a large square area, at ground level, visible from outside through glass walls.

Though police and the museum have declined to discuss some issues that might help these or other thieves, the main details of what happened are clear.

The break-in occurred at around 3 a.m. Tuesday, police say, after someone triggered an alarm.

Investigators have focused on an emergency exit behind the building. The exit leads directly to the main exhibition hall, with paintings hung just a few yards away. Tire tracks can still be seen in the grass behind the building leading away from the exit. Police could be seen Tuesday dusting the exit for fingerprints and taking samples of the tire prints.

The paintings had been grabbed violently from the walls, leaving only white spaces and hanging wires dangling behind.

Officers were on the scene within five minutes of the alarm being triggered, according to museum director Ansenk, but the thieves were already gone.

Police spokesman Henk van der Velde said Wednesday the investigation is proceeding, though the getaway car has not been found and there are no suspects.

The thieves may "wake up and realize they can't sell the paintings easily," said Chris Marinello, of the Art Loss registry.

-- The Associated Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 18, 2012 D4

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