Thieves hit Brazilian art museum

SAO PAULO, Brazil -- Ignoring works by Matisse, Renoir and Van Gogh, thieves homed in on just two paintings - one by Pablo Picasso and another by Candido Portinari - in the first successful heist in the 60-year history of Brazil's premier modern art museum.

Armed with nothing more than a crow bar and a car jack, it took the culprits just three minutes to break into the Sao Paulo Museum of Art before dawn Thursday and steal Picasso's "Portrait of Suzanne Bloch," and Portinari's "O Lavrador de Cafe."

Picasso painted the portrait in 1904 during his Blue Period and it is among the most valuable pieces in the museum's collection. Jones Bergamin, a Sao Paulo gallery director, estimated the painting's price at about $50 million.

"It seems obvious it was a made-to-order theft because they went straight to those two paintings and nothing else," said the lead police investigator, Marcos Gomes de Moura. "Everything indicates they were sent to do it by some crazy, wealthy art lover for his own collection - someone who, although wealthy, was not rich enough to buy the paintings."

The work by Portinari, one of Brazil's most famous painters, depicts a coffee picker. Painted in 1939, the piece is one of the artist's most renowned works. Bergamin estimated it was worth at least $5 million.

Bergamin said he believed the fact that the thieves ignored many other and even more valuable paintings showed they were not the professionals described by police.

"I think they took the Picasso because it was so small and the Portinari because it was hanging by the door," he said. The Picasso measures 26 by 21 inches.

Among some of the paintings the thieves left behind were Pierre-Auguste Renoir's "Bather with a Griffon Dog," Vincent Van Gogh's "L'Arlesienne," and Henri Matisse's "Plaster Torso and Bouquet of Flowers."

The thieves hit the museum before dawn Thursday - a time when the city's busiest avenue is deserted and the guards inside are changing shifts.

Jumping over a glass partition, they climbed an open concrete staircase leading up to the entrance of the two-story modernist building, which hovers over a large plaza on stilts of steel.

For a few fleeting seconds, they could have been seen from blocks away. But the thieves worked quickly. A few jabs of the crowbar, and they were able to slip a common car jack under the metal security gate. A few cranks and they squeezed inside.

Hazy images from a security camera shows three men going in at 5:09 a.m. They smashed through two glass doors, ran to the museum's top floor and grabbed the two framed paintings from different rooms, somehow avoiding guards circulating nearby.

The alarm never rang, and by 5:12 a.m., they were making their escape.

Thieves attempted a robbery at the same museum in late October but were foiled by the alarm system. Moura said he believes Thursday's robbery was carried out by the same gang.

Art thieves hit Brazil last year, when a gang of five men used a carnival street parade to cover the theft of four paintings by Paul Cezanne, Salvador Dali, Claude Monet and Picasso from a Rio de Janeiro art museum. Those works, valued at around $40 million, have never been recovered.


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