Thursday, August 31, 2006

Stolen Munch Masterpieces Recovered

The Scream
From Associated Press

1:59 PM PDT, August 31, 2006

OSLO, Norway — Two years after masked gunmen grabbed national artistic treasures in front of stunned visitors at an Oslo museum, police announced today they recovered the Edvard Munch masterpieces "The Scream" and "Madonna."

Art lovers had feared the priceless paintings were gone for good. Norwegian news media spent the months speculating about the works' fate -- whether they had been burned to escape the police hunt, sold to a wealthy collector for private viewing or suffered harm in their hiding place.

"I saw the paintings myself today, and there was far from the damage that could have been feared," said Iver Stensrud, the police inspector who headed the investigation since the paintings were taken by masked gunmen who raided the Munch Museum on Aug. 22, 2004.

Experts from the Munch Museum confirmed late today that the paintings, still shielded from the public and the news media, were the real thing.

Norwegians were shocked when two or three thieves black masks entered the museum and threatened an employee with a handgun, then wrenched the two paintings off the wall and fled. Many museumgoers panicked, thinking they were being attacked by terrorists.

Many people initially thought the paintings might be offered for ransom. Art experts said it would be nearly impossible to sell such famous pieces of art, although some people speculated an immensely rich, unscrupulous art lover might be a willing buyer.

Then at a trial this year for three men charged with minor roles in the heist, prosecutors suggested the robbery was pulled off to distract police from the hunt for a gang behind a commando-style bank robbery four months earlier that killed a police officer.

Prosecutor Terje Nyboe called the theft "an attack on Norwegian culture and Norwegian history."

The two paintings were on a list released by the FBI last fall compiling the top 10 art thefts around the globe.

"The Scream" is probably the best known work in Munch's emotionally charged style, which was a major influence in the birth of the Expressionist movement. Its waif-like figure, apparently screaming or hearing a scream, has become a modern icon of human anxiety.

"The Scream" and "Madonna" were part of the artist's "Frieze of Life" series, focusing on sickness, death, anxiety and love.

Even though Munch, who died in 1944 at age 80, had painted three other versions of "The Scream," his fellow Norwegians were heartbroken over the theft, and news of its return was greeted with relief and joy.

"I am almost crying from happiness," said Gro Balas, chairwoman of the Munch Museum board.

Stensrud, the police inspector, said authorities believed the paintings had been in Norway the whole time.

But he was cagey at a news conference in Oslo about how the paintings were recovered, saying only that "the pictures came into our hands this afternoon after a successful police action."

He did say no reward was paid, even though the City of Oslo, which owns the paintings, offered 2 million kroner, or about $294,000, for their return. He also said three men convicted this year for roles in the theft did not provide any help.

"We built this stone for stone," Stensrud said of the investigation. "This is a joyous day for the police, and for Norway."

No new arrests were reported.

Three Norwegian men sentenced to prison in May were convicted of participating in the theft plot, but police said the masked gunmen remain at large.

Petter Tharaldsen, 34, was convicted of driving the getaway car and sentenced to eight years in prison. Bjoern Hoen, 37, was sentenced to seven years in prison, and Petter Rosenvinge, 38, to four years for providing and preparing the getaway car.

The theft of "The Scream" was the second time in a decade that a version of Munch's iconic painting was stolen. One of the other versions was taken from Oslo's National Gallery in February 1994, but recovered three months later.