Stolen Picasso recovered undamaged in Brazil

Guardian Unlimited - Quinta-feira, 10 de janeiro de 2008

qui, 10/01/2008 - 14h15 | Do Portal do Governo

Guardian Unlimited

Police in Brazil have recovered two paintings worth a total of £28m, three weeks after they were stolen from one of South America’s most prestigious galleries.

Escorted by a helicopter and more than a dozen police vehicles, the works by Pablo Picasso and the Brazilian artist Cândido Portinari were returned yesterday to the Sao Paulo Museum of Art (Masp). Picasso’s Portrait of Suzanne Bloch and Portinari’s The Coffee Worker, which were stolen by masked men on December 20, were found on Tuesday at a house in Greater Sao Paulo. Two arrests were made, but police are still hunting for the mastermind behind the theft.

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Few details were released about the police operation, but reports in the Brazilian press suggested that a third suspect had led them to the safe house, where the works were found undamaged.

Brazil’s authorities believe the raid may have been commissioned overseas. “Thefts like this were probably not carried out by Brazilians,” said the pop-star culture minister, Gilberto Gil. “They must be linked to international gangs.”

Speaking at a press conference on Tuesday at which the paintings were displayed, the police chief, Mauricio Freire, said: “Evidently [the two suspects] did not commit this crime for themselves and the next step is the find the person who ‘ordered’ the paintings.”

The two suspects were to have been paid £1.5m for the works, he added.

The theft, which took place while the guards changed shift, was a major embarrassment to the Masp as was the museum’s admission later that many of its art works on display were uninsured.

When police arrived at the scene they found a hydraulic jack, a crow bar and an earpiece they believed may have been used to communicate with accomplices outside the museum. The thieves ignored other valuable paintings, including works by Renoir and Matisse.

According to the Estado de Sao Paulo newspaper the rescue followed several extortion attempts. It reported that the museum’s president, Júlio Neves, had received a letter on January 3 demanding £5m for the paintings. Three phone calls were reported to have been made demanding lesser sums, but police were said to have considered them hoaxes.

Masp has remained shut since the theft but is expected to reopen tomorrow with the two paintings back on display.

The museum plans to install security and surveillance equipment similar to that used by the Louvre in Paris, Neves said.

Until now, it had never used alarms or movement sensors: “Our directors have always felt that unarmed guards patrolling the interior of the museum 24 hours a day were sufficient to protect the building and the art collection it houses,” said a Masp spokesman.