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Two paintings recovered from Zurich heist

Keystone

Police in Zurich have recovered two out of four paintings stolen from the Bührle museum by armed robbers over a week ago in Switzerland's biggest theft.

This content was published on February 19, 2008 - 15:56

Cézanne's The Boy in the Red Vest and Degas' Count Lepic and His Daughters, the most and least valuable of the stolen works, are still missing.

Two paintings by Vincent van Gogh and Claude Monet were found in an abandoned vehicle in a psychiatric clinic's car park on Monday afternoon, according to local police.

The pictures were among four paintings valued at SFr180 million ($163 million) that were stolen from the private Bührle collection. The two recovered are worth an estimated SFr70 million.

Museum director Lukas Gloor, who formally identified the paintings, told a news conference on Tuesday that he was relieved.

"The injury we suffered on February 10 has partially been healed," he said. "Both paintings are still in perfect condition."

Art experts have suggested that the robbers were taking advantage of what appears to be an easy mark - a low-security museum - without knowing about the paintings or how difficult it can be to sell such well-known art works if they are stolen.

"The robbery was not done with knowledge about art," insisted Gloor. "It's striking that the two largest (paintings) returned."

Gloor said he suspected that the robbers abandoned the two paintings because their big size complicates moving them. He pointed out though that the robbers still had the Cézanne, a landmark work by the French master worth an estimated SFr100 million.

Biggest art theft

Police described the heist last week as the biggest ever robbery committed in Switzerland and almost certainly the biggest art theft in Europe.

The three masked men who entered the museum with pistols are still at large.

One of the men used his firearm to force museum personnel to the floor, while the two others went into the exhibition hall and collected the first four paintings they came across.

Although the most valuable painting was among the ones they took, they left behind the second most precious picture in the room, Cezanne's Self Portrait with Palette, insured for SFr90 million.

The museum was open at the time with around 15 visitors inside.

The men were about 175cm tall and one of them spoke German with a Slavic accent, police said. They loaded the paintings into a white vehicle parked in front of the museum.

Suspicious sedan

It was a white Opel car that police towed away on Monday after being advised by the clinic - which is only a few hundred metres away from the museum - that a suspicious sedan containing paintings was parked in its car park.

A large police operation followed the discovery of the car, with the hospital grounds sealed off and forensic experts going over the vehicle meticulously.

Police officials gave no further details about the vehicle, wanting to keep the investigation's progress under wraps.

Gloor said he was very satisfied with the police work so far.

"We have been impressed, but we know we will have to be patient before the other paintings return to the foundation," he added.

swissinfo with agencies

Bührle collection

The art collection of Emil Georg Bührle (1890-1956), a Zurich industrialist, is among the most important private collections amassed in the 20th century of European art.

He acquired the lion's share in the 1950s, but a few of the works he collected during the Second World War were discovered later to have been stolen by the Nazis.

In 1960 Bührle's family placed 200 pieces in a foundation and opened it to the public. French Impressionism and Post-Impressionism constitute the core of the collection.

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