Thieves take $164 million art works in Swiss heist

ZURICH (Reuters) - Masked robbers brandishing handguns stole four paintings by 19th Century masters worth $164 million from a Zurich museum in Switzerland’s biggest art theft, police said on Monday.

Oil paintings by Cezanne, Degas, van Gogh and Monet were stolen in broad daylight on Sunday from the private Buehrle Collection in the second dramatic art theft in the area within days.

“This is the biggest robbery in Switzerland in an art museum and one of the biggest art robberies in Europe,” said Peter Rueegger, head of investigations for the Zurich police.

Three men in dark clothing and masks, one of whom spoke German with a Slavic accent, forced their way into the museum and made off with the paintings in a white car, police said.

A reward of 100,000 Swiss francs was on offer for information leading to their arrest, police added.

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Rueegger said the Zurich robbery could be compared to the theft of Norwegian artist Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” from the Munch Museum in Oslo nearly four years ago. That work was recovered in 2006.

The robbery in Switzerland’s financial capital follows the theft of two Picasso paintings -- Tete de Cheval, from 1962, and Verre et Pichet, from 1944 -- from a nearby cultural centre last week.

They said it was possible a white vehicle had also played a role in this incident and that they would investigate whether the two thefts were connected.

The four paintings stolen were Cezanne’s The Boy in the Red Vest from 1890, Degas’ Viscount Lepic and His Daughters from 1871, Monet’s Poppies Near Vetheuil from 1880 and Van Gogh’s Blossoming Chestnut Branches from 1890, police said.

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The Boy in the Red Vest was the museum’s most valuable painting, said Lukas Gloor, curator of the collection at the museum.

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“I am devastated. We had done everything we could to protect the paintings to the best of our knowledge and capability,” Gloor said.

Police raised the value of the paintings to 180 million Swiss francs ($164.2 million) after initially saying the paintings were valued at 100 million francs.

The Sunday theft occurred at the impressionist collection amassed by the late Swiss industrialist Emil Buehrle -- one of the most controversial business figures of his time for selling anti-aircraft guns to Nazi Germany during World War Two.

The Buehrle Collection, positioned near Zurich’s wealthy Gold Coast chain of lakeside suburbs, boasts one of the most important assemblies of French impressionism and post-impressionism, according to its Web site

Buehrle collected the paintings, housed in a gated villa on the outskirts of Zurich, between 1951 and his death in 1956, according to the Web site.

The stolen Picassos, which are valued in media reports at around $4.5 million, were on loan from the Sprengel Museum in Hannover.

Police told Reuters they had no concrete leads on the Picasso theft and that the investigation was ongoing.

Reporting by Katie Reid and Andrew Hurst; Writing by Thomas Atkins; Editing by Charles Dick