Art theft in Sweden: $52-million

Published Nov. 9, 1993|Updated Oct. 10, 2005

Thieves cut a hole in the roof of the Museum of Modern Art and "ripped the heart out" of its Picasso collection, stealing $52-million worth of uninsured art work.

The thieves carried seven framed paintings and a Picasso bronze sculpture out through the roof in one of the biggest art heists in modern history. Two of the paintings were by Georges Braque and five by Picasso.

The break-in was discovered Monday morning. The sight of a 3-foot-by-3-foot hole in the sheet metal and wooden roof, footprints on the whitewashed wall and shattered glass on the floor caused a guard to raise the alarm.

The museum is on small Skeppsholmen island, and police blockaded the only bridge connecting it with the rest of downtown. They circled the area and started a nationwide search.

"The museum is in mourning. It is a terrible incident, to rip the heart out of the exhibition," museum chief Bjorn Springfeldt told a news conference.

Police said at least two professional thieves climbed to the roof of the museum Sunday night, sawed a hole through the ceiling and lowered themselves 12 feet into the central exhibit room.

Police said they had found no tools or any trace of the rope they believed the thieves used.

The world's biggest art theft was in March 1990 when 13 works valued at $300-million were stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, Mass.

The paintings stolen from Stockholm were not insured because they are state property. Several had been donated by the late publisher Gerard Bonnier.

"We hope they will realize that (it) is impossible to sell the stolen works on the open market," Springfeldt said.

He and security chief Kjell Hestrell refused to describe in detail on how the thieves avoided setting off alarms or alerting security guards. Although the stolen paintings were not individually wired to alarms, the frames were screwed into the wall, and it appeared the thieves used something like a crowbar to wrench them off.

The thieves used metal-cutting shears to make an opening in the roof, the weakest point of the museum, which is housed in a 19th-century military barracks.

Springfeldt criticized the government and Parliament for ordering museums to cut their security spending in the past few years because they had gone over budget.

"The government knows we are in an unsuitable building. That is why a decision was taken to commission a new museum costing roughly 350-million kronor ($43-million) by 1997," Springfeldt said.

Art professor Ulf Linde, a member of the Swedish Academy, also blamed "politicians for neglecting the security issue.

"Who will now lend works of art to Sweden?" Linde asked.

"The theft was made to get a maximum of value, by one of the 20th century's greatest artists, Picasso," Springfeldt said. "These were no amateurs. It was a precise incision into the museum's collection."

The stolen Picasso works were: The Spring, 1921, a painting from the artist's neoclassical period showing a woman lying on her side; Dragonfly from 1929, when he started his Cubist period; The Painter, an oil on wood from 1930; Woman With Black Eyes (also known as Dora Maar); and Woman With Blue Collar from 1941. The 16-inch bronze sculpture Woman is from 1931.

The stolen paintings by Braque were Chateau La Roche-Guyon from 1909 and Still Life from 1928.

The museum was closed as usual on Monday. Springfeldt said it would open as normal today.