It's A Scream: Recounting the Munch Theft

The real story behind the most outrageous art heist of the century

After a year talking to witnesses, art experts, criminal sources and the detective who led the investigation, a story worthy of a Pink Panther film began to emerge. Clown-like figures sprinting down a street with [pounds sterling] 65 million worth of art under their arms; the lure of two million chocolate sweets to (successfully) encourage a chocoholic criminal mastermind to confess; farcical police blunders that saw a surveillance team spot the paintings only to allow them to be driven away; and, most intriguingly, the fact that the theft of The Scream was in truth no more than a smokescreen designed to protect the leader of one of Europe's most vicious criminal cartels from police investigation. It came so close to working that the police chief who cracked the case still has sleepless nights contemplating the price of failure.

The theft of Munch's The Scream (value [pounds sterling] 50 million) and Madonna (value [pounds sterling] 15 million) took place at about 11 a.m. on August 22, 2004. From the start, the whole thing seemed like a prank. The security guard at the Munch Museum remembers watching aghast as two men sprinted towards the building, one in a hooded grey sweatshirt, the other dressed in black, both wearing tight balaclavas. They first ran into the museum cafe, but they hadn't seen the automatic sliding glass doors.

In true Mr. Bean style, they banged straight into them.

Dazed and more than a little embarrassed, the pair then ran through the doors that had since glided open. As they ran down a long corridor past a collection of Impressionist nudes, nobody thought that they might be thieves.

But when one of them drew a gun and ran into a room full of Munch portraits, people started to panic and ran towards the exit. Sadly for the robbers, they were in the wrong room. They doubled back, before tracking down their target.

The Scream, a symbol of expressionist angst, shows an individual on a bridge, hands clasped around their head, howling at the viewer. One of the world's most famous paintings, it is said to reflect Munch's own despair after the deaths of his mother and elder sister - a despair the robbers were now beginning to share.

A little-known fact is that there are four versions of The Scream - all are as valuable as each other, although the one in the Munch Museum is considered to be a premium example. The man with the gun screamed at the museum visitors to fall to the floor. A security guard who was slow to obey found herself looking down the barrel of a remarkable silver .357 Magnum. She and three of her colleagues and dozens of tourists swiftly complied.

The gunman's accomplice now tore The Scream from its mounting. He swore as he buckled under its unexpected weight, and dropped it with a crash on to the floor. He tore down another Munch painting, Madonna. The men each grabbed a picture and started to stagger for the exit, knees sagging.

Incredibly, although the removal of the paintings from the walls triggered an alarm at the police station and automatically snapped shut emergency exit doors, the main front doors remained open. The pair dropped Madonna twice as they stumbled towards a black Audi estate with the boot open and the engine running. So blatant was the crime that a passing tourist had time to snap a series of photos of the robbers as they dumped the paintings in the back and sped off.

One mile later, the car stopped near a railway. A woman watched from her apartment window as the robbers tore the pictures from their frames. The idea was to remove any electronic tracking devices. Here the robbers had overestimated the security measures; there were no such devices. They shoved the canvases into another waiting car, sprayed the Audi with a fire extinguisher to eradicate fingerprints and traces of DNA, and drove off.

Hours later, Iver Stensrud was summoned to his boss's office. As the head of Oslo's organised crime unit, Stensrud was Norway's best man. But he was also worn out after spending four months trying to crack the country's biggest bank heist. The 55-year-old was closing in onthe gang behind the [pounds sterling] 5 million robbery and was not amused when he heard that a pair of idiots in ski masks had managed to steal the country's most prized possession. To Norwegians, losing The Scream was like having the crown jewels stolen from the Tower of London: national pride was at stake.