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Priceless artwork stolen in Nice

Armed robbers have stolen four priceless works of art — including a Monet — in a brazen daylight raid on a French museum.

A gang of masked men walked into the Musee des Beaux-Arts in Nice and ordered staff to lay on the floor at gunpoint while they snatched the paintings. They removed five canvases but dropped and damaged one as they made their escape.

Monet’s Falaises pres de Dieppe (Cliffs near Dieppe) and an 1890 work by Alfred Sisley, Allee des peupliers de Moret (The Lane of Poplars at Moret) were taken. Two paintings by Jan Brueghel the Elder, Allegorie de L’Eau (Allegory of Water) and Allegorie de la Terre (Allegory of Earth), were also taken.

It was the second time the Monet had been stolen and the third time for the Sisley. Both were stolen from the same museum in 1998 but were discovered a week later on a boat moored in a nearby town. The mu­seum’s then curator was convicted of the theft and jailed for five years along with two accomplices.

The Sisley was also stolen in 1978 when on loan in Marseille. It was recovered a few days later in the city’s sewers.

The latest robbery took place at 1pm on Sunday, when the 19th-century museum has free entry to the public. Police said there were four or five robbers, two of whom made their getaway on a motorbike while the rest escaped in a car.

Investigators believe the paintings, described as of “inestimable value” by the museum, were almost certainly stolen by “special order” and destined for a private collection as they are far too well known to be sold on the open market.

Monique Bailet, the museum’s assistant curator, said: “One of the staff members on the first floor said the men ordered him to lie on the floor as they put the paintings in bags. They wanted to take a fifth but weren’t able to.”

Patricia Grimaud, one of the museum’s conservationists, added: “They tried to take a second Sisley but, when they found it was too heavy or too bulky, they dropped it and broke the frame.”

The Nice museum has a collection of art spanning four centuries. It is celebrated for its fine Impressionist and post-Impressionist works and also has sculptures by Auguste Rodin and ceramics by Pablo Picasso. The Brueghels belonged to the museum while the Sisley and the Monet came from the Musee d’Orsay in Paris.

The French culture minister, Christine Albanel, expressed “indignation and sadness” at the theft.

There were no cameras in the building. Andre Barthe, Nice’s deputy mayor in charge of culture, said the staff were “more adapted to the task than cameras”.

“With cameras, you cut the wires, you disguise your appearance, as the robbers did; it’s not the ideal solution. I prefer an extra guard to an extra camera,” he told French radio. “Alarm or not, when you are robbed you cannot do anything.” — Â

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