Police Recover Stolen Munch Art

OSLO, Norway (AP) - Three works of art by Norwegian master Edvard Munch - including a unique watercolor entitled "Blue Dress" - were recovered less than 24 hours after thieves with crowbars pried them loose from a restaurant's walls, police said.

Authorities also made several arrests in the capital on Monday, including several known criminals, police spokesman Iver Stensrud said.

He declined to say how many were detained or give details about the condition of the stolen watercolor and two lithographs while the investigation was still pending.

"We can say the artwork has been recovered," he said. "It was just good police work."

Munch's tortured tableaus have proven to be quite a draw for Norway's art thieves. In August, priceless Munch masterpieces "The Scream" and "Madonna" were stolen from a museum with guards. They have yet to be recovered.

The three pieces stolen Sunday night from the restaurant at the upscale Hotel Refnes were valued at a total of about 1.6 million kroner (euro200,000; US$257,000).

The most valuable - the 1915 watercolor "Blue Dress" - is worth as much as 1 million kroner (euro121,493; US$160,857), Munch expert and auctioneer Knut Forsberg said.

The other two are lithographs include a self-portrait and a portrait of Swedish artist August Strindberg.

Munch developed an emotionally charged painting style that helped launch the 20th Century Expressionist movement. He died in 1944 at the age of 80, having produced some 1,700 paintings and 30,000 prints.

The hotel's owner, Widar Salbuvik, said the thieves used crowbars to pry the artwork off the walls of the restaurant just after it had closed for the night. The hotel is near the city of Moss, about 50 kilometers (30 miles) south of Oslo.

A hotel worker was walking through the restaurant around 11 p.m. (2200GMT) Sunday and surprised two unarmed men who had torn the pictures and frames from their special security mounts on the walls, police spokesman Jan Pedersen said.

"They dropped one, and broke the frame and glass, but took the picture," Pedersen said. Police were searching for two dark-haired men believed to be in their 20s, he said.

The August theft of "The Scream" and Madonna" from the Munch Museum raised concerns about security in the art world, as three armed robbers grabbed the valuable pieces in broad daylight.

In 1994, another version of "The Scream" was stolen from the National Gallery in Oslo and was recovered a few months later in a sting operation.

Pedersen and Stensrud separately dismissed any immediate claims that the two recent thefts were linked. "There are no grounds for assuming any connection between the thefts, but we will be talking to the Oslo police about it."

"It seems to be a fashion among criminals to steal Munch," the hotel owner Salbuvik said. "How professional is it to steal art? Great value, big risk and hard to sell. They would have to be very slow in the head to do it."

The hotel is located on the island of Jeloey, where Munch lived and worked from about 1913 to 1916. In total, the hotel has seven Munch works in its collection of about 400 pieces, which also includes works by Andy Warhol.

The three Munch pictures stolen Sunday had been attached to the walls, but the burglars ripped the frames from the walls, Salbuvik said. The alarm system had been turned off.

The upscale and exclusive hotel, built in 1767, will continue to display its art works, despite the theft, because it was important to his guests "rather than soft core porn on the TV," he said.

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