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7 Picassos stolen from art gallery

Thieves broke into an art gallery and took seven paintings by Pablo Picasso, including two early works stolen from the same gallery three years ago.

Gallery owner Max K. Bollag said the paintings were not insured. He estimated their value at $44-million. One Picasso expert said that was too high.

The paintings were stolen over the weekend by thieves who got in through the cellar of a neighboring house, Bollag said Monday. In addition to the seven Picassos, the thieves also took an oil painting by American artist Julius Pascin.

Bollag said the paintings were in his private office, where he had shown them to visitors a few days ago. Although the gallery's outside door was rigged to a burglar alarm, the inside doors were merely locked, he said. He noticed the paintings were missing when he opened the gallery Monday morning.

"It's terrible to find that such beautiful creations, with which I lived for so long and with which I had such a personal relationship, vanished overnight," said Bollag, 81.

Police spokesman Karl Steiner said there were no clues on the identity of the thieves or the fate of the paintings.

Bollag said two of the paintings, Seated Woman and Christ of Montmartre, were valued at $40-million. Both were also stolen in June 1991 and recovered the following February. Eight people were arrested in that theft.

On that occasion, two people posing as potential buyers distracted Bollag while a third person sneaked up to the second floor and smuggled out the paintings.

Picasso painted Seated Woman, a 23-inch by 15-inch gouache on canvas, in 1903 during his so-called Blue Period. Christ of Montmartre is a 14-inch by 11-inch watercolor from the Rose Period shortly thereafter.

The value of the other five Picassos _ four paintings and a sketch _ was estimated at $130,000 to $1.5-million each.

Bollag said his father and uncle bought the paintings from Picasso himself when the Spanish artist was struggling to make a living at the beginning of his career.

Maurice Rheims, a Picasso expert at the Academie Francaise in Paris, said the estimated values seemed "way out of line with today's market, which is still in crisis."

Rheims, who evaluated the Picasso estate in the 1970s, said Picasso's works were not usually prime targets for thieves because the market was too unstable.

But in the past year, works by the prolific Spanish master, who lived from 1881 to 1973, have been stolen from museums in Stockholm, Athens and Chicago.