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Robbers take four impressionist paintings from a Swiss museum.

Armed robbers stole four paintings by van Gogh, Monet, Degas and Cezanne from a museum in Zurich, the Swiss authorities announced Monday, in what they said might have been the largest art theft in Europe. Their total worth is estimated at $163.2-million.

Three thieves, wearing dark clothes and ski masks, walked into the Emile Buehrle Foundation, a private collection housed a couple of miles outside Zurich's city center on the shore of Lake Zurich, around 4:30 p.m. on Sunday, a short while before the museum was due to close. The collection is considered one of the biggest privately owned collections of French impressionists in the world.

While one held a pistol and ordered visitors and staff members to lie on the floor in the main room of the museum, the two other men removed the four paintings from the wall: Claude Monet's Poppies near Vetheuil, Ludovic Lepic and his Daughters by Edgar Degas, Vincent van Gogh's Blossoming Chestnut Branches, and Paul Cezanne's Boy in the Red Waistcoat.

"It is a very bad experience because as museum director you live with these pictures day in day out, you become attached to them like family," said Lukas Gloor, the museum's director, at a news conference.

After the theft, the men, one whom spoke German with a Slavic accent, fled in a white car, with the trunk open and the paintings visible, witnesses said.

"This is the largest ever art robbery in Switzerland, and it would be hard to find a bigger example elsewhere in Europe," said Peter Ruegger, head of the investigation.

The police said they did not think the paintings were stolen "to order" because they were hanging in a row along one wall, and the thieves seemed to have simply removed the row. They were also not the most expensive paintings in the museum.

Authorities speculated that the thieves stopped after taking four paintings because they were in heavy glass casings. Last week, two Picasso oils valued at $4.5-million were stolen from a Swiss museum in Pfaeffikon, but authorities said Monday that they did not think the two robberies were linked.

The FBI estimates the stolen art market at $6-billion annually, and Interpol has about 30,000 stolen works listed in its database. But while only a fraction of stolen art is ever found, such thefts are rare because of intense police investigations and the difficulty of selling the works.

"It's extremely hard, if not impossible, to sell these works," said Michaela Derra of Ketterer Kunst GmbH, a Munich, Germany-based purveyor of modern and contemporary art. "Maybe they think they can blackmail the insurance (companies) and get money for the paintings in return." Police said the museum had not received any such demand.

A $90,000 reward was offered for information leading to the paintings.

Buehrle, a German-born industrialist who provided arms to the Third Reich during World War II, amassed one of Europe's greatest private collections in the aftermath of the war.

At least 13 of the artworks he owned at war's end were included on British specialist Douglas Cooper's "looted art list," which was used to recover pieces stolen from Jews by the Nazis.

A five-year, Swiss government study released in 2001 said Buehrle had acquired an unknown amount of "flight art" - works smuggled out of Axis-controlled areas by Jews and sold at rock-bottom prices to avoid confiscation by the Nazis.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

Fast facts

Other notable art robberies

February 2007: Two Picasso paintings, worth nearly $66-million, and a drawing are stolen from the Paris home of the artist's granddaughter in an overnight heist. Police later recover the art when the thieves try to sell it.

February 2006: Around 300 artifacts worth an estimated $142-million, including paintings, clocks and silver, are stolen from a 17th century manor house at Ramsbury in southern England, the largest property theft in British history.

August 2004: Two paintings by Edvard Munch, The Scream and Madonna, insured for $141-million, are stolen from the Munch Museum in Oslo, Norway, by three men during a daylight raid. The paintings were recovered nearly two years later.

March 1990: In the biggest art theft in U.S. history, $300-million in art, including works by Vermeer, Rembrandt and Manet, is stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston by two men in police uniforms. Many of the paintings have been recovered, but a priceless Vermeer, called The Concert, still is missing.

Associated Press