Under armed guard, an expert analyses pictures by Picasso and Portinari, recovered after a theft in December 2007 at Sao Paulo’s Art Museum. Photographer: Sebastiao Moreira/EPA
Police in Brazil were today hunting the mastermind behind the theft of two paintings, including one by Picasso, from South America’s most prestigious art gallery after the pictures were found.
The paintings – the other of which is by the Brazilian artist Candido Portinari – are worth a combined £28m and were recovered from a house in Ferraz de Vasconcelos, Greater Sao Paulo, yesterday. They were stolen in December.
Heavily-armed officers from Sao Paulo’s organized crime squad made two arrests.
Few details of the police operation have been released, although reports in the Brazilian press suggested a third suspect had led them to the safe house, where the paintings were found wrapped in plastic covers in a bedroom.
Museum directors said the pictures had not been damaged.
Brazilian authorities, including the culture minister, Gilberto Gil, said they believed the raid could have been commissioned by art thieves from overseas.
“Thefts like this were probably not carried out by Brazilians,” Gil said. “They must be linked to international gangs.”
At a press conference yesterday, at which the recovered paintings were paraded before the cameras, police chief Mauricio Freire said: “Evidently they [the two suspects] did not commit this crime for themselves, and the next step is the find the person who ordered the paintings.”
According to the Estado de Sao Paulo newspaper, the rescue followed several attempts to extort money from Sao Paulo’s Art Museum, known as Masp.
Today, the newspaper reported that the gallery’s president, Julio Neves, had received a letter demanding $10m in exchange for the paintings on January 3.
It was reported that a further three phone calls had been made to the gallery, demanding smaller sums, although police are said to have considered these to be hoaxes.
In December, Brazil’s art world was stunned when a gang of masked men launched a three-minute raid on Masp, making off with Picassso’s 1904 Portrait of Suzanne Bloch and Portinari’s 1939 painting The Coffee Worker.
When police arrived at the scene, they found a hydraulic jack, a crowbar and an earpiece they believed could have been used to communicate with other criminals waiting outside the museum.
The burglary was a major embarrassment to the museum, casting the spotlight on a deficient security system and the fact that many of the paintings on show were not insured.
The gallery has remained shut since the lightning raid on December 20. It is now expected to reopen on Friday with the two paintings restored to their positions.