/ 17 October 2012

Dutch police investigating art heist tips

Police are following more than a dozen tips from witnesses to retrieve the paintings that were stolen from the Kunsthal exhibition in Rotterdam.
Police are following more than a dozen tips from witnesses to retrieve the paintings that were stolen from the Kunsthal exhibition in Rotterdam.

In Hollywood movies, heists usually feature criminals whose meticulous planning and high-tech equipment are used to avoid detection. But thieves who snatched seven paintings by Picasso, Matisse and Monet worth millions from a gallery in Rotterdam appear to have taken a less glamorous approach, relying mostly on speed and brute force.

In other words, the theft from the Kunsthal exhibition on avant-garde art was more "smash and grab" than Ocean's 11. Dutch police said Wednesday they had no suspects in the case, the largest art heist in the country for more than a decade, though an appeal to witnesses had produced more than a dozen tips for investigators to follow up.

Museum director Emily Ansenk rejected criticism of the museum's safeguards. Speaking at a news conference Tuesday evening, she defended Kunsthal's security as "state of the art" and noted that insurance companies had agreed to insure the exhibition.

And yet the thieves got away. The paintings they took are estimated to be worth roughly $100-million if sold at auction. The theft raises questions about whether security at the Kunsthal museum, which was designed by renowned Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, was sufficient to protect paintings worth millions of dollars each.

Experts said features of the building's design and location itself may have been what initially attracted criminals. "Speaking as a museum-goer, it's fantastic," museum security expert Ton Cremers said. "Speaking as a security expert, it's a total nightmare."

The gallery is located aside a large road that leads to a roundabout, less than a mile away, linking to highways heading in three directions. The display space where the paintings once hung is a large square area, at ground level, visible from outside through glass walls. Though police and the museum have declined to discuss some issues that might help these or other thieves, the main details of what happened are clear.

The break-in occurred at around 3am on Tuesday, police say, after someone triggered an alarm. Investigators have focused on an emergency exit behind the building. The exit leads directly to the main exhibition hall, with paintings hung just a few yards away. Tire tracks can still be seen in the grass behind the building leading away from the exit.

Police could be seen on Tuesday dusting the exit for fingerprints and taking samples of the tire prints. The paintings had been grabbed violently from the walls, leaving only white spaces and hanging wires dangling behind.

Officers were on the scene within five minutes of the alarm being triggered, according to museum director Ansenk, but the thieves were already gone. Police spokesperson Henk van der Velde said on Wednesday the investigation is proceeding, though the getaway car has not been found and there are no suspects.

Agents were reviewing videotape from museum cameras. It is unknown what will happen with the paintings if the thieves are not caught. The thieves may "wake up and realise they can't sell the paintings easily," said Chris Marinello, of the Art Loss registry. But they may also sell them on the black market for a fraction of their true value, or ask insurers for money in exchange for returning them.

Cremers said the museum was not at fault for relying on cameras and motion detectors, rather than human guards. Having guards on site is costly, and they would be instructed not to confront robbers during a break-in anyway.

"The only thing they can do is call police," he said. Cremers said the museum should have looked at ways to slow potential thieves down. That might have prevented them from attempting to break in in the first place, or at least limited the size of their haul.

He said the paintings should have been hung inside behind a second makeshift wall with doors, creating a "box within a box" in the gallery. In addition, the museum could have set up a barrier or fence preventing cars from being able to drive up right to the emergency doors. "I'm sure they'll be looking at that now," he said. – Sapa-AP