Famous Art Stolen from Zurich Museum Three armed men in ski masks stole four paintings by Cezanne, Degas, van Gogh and Monet worth $163.2 million from in one of Europe's largest ever art heists.
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Famous Art Stolen from Zurich Museum

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Famous Art Stolen from Zurich Museum

Famous Art Stolen from Zurich Museum

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

They're the kind of names that can make an art museum - Monet, van Gogh, Cezanne, Degas. Over the weekend, thieves stole four paintings by those masters from a museum in Zurich, Switzerland. The combined value an estimated $163 million.

Christopher Marinello is with the Art Loss Register - that's an international database of stolen art. He joins us from London. Christopher, welcome to DAY TO DAY. I saw the wire services quote a Swiss police officer describing this theft as spectacular. I think it's always bad news when police use that kind of word.

Mr. CHRISTOPHER MARINELLO (Art Loss Register): Yeah, that certainly is raising a lot of questions. We do know that there were weapons involved and museum personnel were forced to retreat to the floor. So it is a spectacular theft.

CHADWICK: It was yesterday, Sunday evening, when the thieves entered the museum toward closing time, and they take the paintings of the wall and they scoot?

Mr. MARINELLO: That's correct. And we're very concerned, because this happened just two days after another major theft in Switzerland of two Picasso's. And there is some concern that there might be a gang to there operating right now.

CHADWICK: Is there something in the modus operandi of the two thefts that suggest to you that's it's the same group of thieves?

Mr. MARINELLO: Well, I certainly don't want to comment too much while the police are investigating. But there're not any necessarily connection with the way it was done.

CHADWICK: I'm wondering if Swiss bank accounts maybe get better protection than art in Switzerland.

Mr. MARINELLO: It's really happening everywhere in the world. It's, you know, as thieves see the prices that art is achieving in the major auction houses, art is increasingly becoming a commodity for art thieves to launder money or to use art as collateral.

CHADWICK: Wouldn't the paintings that have been stolen - I mean, this is $160 million of art, four paintings, so these must be fairly major works right?

Mr. MARINELLO: Oh, absolutely. And if you go to the museum Web site you can still see photographs of the pictures. They're quite amazing.

CHADWICK: We will link to that Web site at our site npr.org - so listeners you can see them there. But it does raise the notion that how in the heck are they going to get rid of these things?

Mr. MARINELLO: That's what the Art Loss Register is trying to do. When there is an art theft, the first thing you do is you call the police. The second thing you do is you call the Art Loss Register. If a thief is going to try to sell these works somewhere, we're going to find them. They can try to put them in a show, try to seal them to a dealer who doesn't know what they are, sell them to a collector who doesn't know what they - about the theft. If that happens we're going to find them.

CHADWICK: If that's the case, how is it that the vast majority of stolen paintings each year go un-recovered?

Mr. MARINELLO: Well, because they go underground, and it takes a while for art to surface. We're finding many servicemen now that came home from World War II with trophies. As they're passing on and leaving art to their estates, their children are selling these works and they're beginning to surface. The thieves are going to try to hide them as much as they can, but the more people that report art theft and search before they buy, it will help us do our job.

CHADWICK: Doesn't it suggest to you - I mean, these thieves knew what they were doing, right? They operated very efficiently. They got away. They presumably knew the paintings that they were taking, right? They didn't take the less valuable paintings. Doesn't it suggest that maybe they already have a market for these paintings?

Mr. MARINELLO: Well, I know there's a lot of people out there who think that art is stolen to order. You know, a wealthy collector somewhere says, look, I want you to find me a Degas, Cezanne, Monet and a van Gogh and these are the ones I want. We don't really believe in the mysterious Dr. No who's collecting art somewhere. We really think thieves are out there. They're stealing art. They're trying to get money out of it quickly. There's a reason why a Picasso is the number one reported artist on the Art Loss Register database, because everyone has heard of Picasso. And so they pick some big names because they thought they would get some big money.

CHADWICK: Christopher Marinello of the Art Loss Register in London on the big weekend art theft in Zurich. Christopher, thank you.

Mr. MARINELLO: Alex, thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

CHADWICK: Stay with us on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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