It's A Scream: Recounting the Munch Theft

Oct. 11, 2006
The real story behind the most outrageous art heist of the century

The theft of Munch's [pounds sterling] 50m masterpiece transfixed the world.

But a yearlong investigation by crime writer Kris Hollington reveals the amazing truth - a Pink Panther crime caper that was merely a smokescreen for an even more dastardly plan...

Norwegian film star Thomas 'Rocco' Hansen was in the middle of a shoot at 1:30 a.m. on August 30, 2004, when he heard shouting and then gunfire coming from the plaza below. It was an unwelcome distraction. He was no ordinary actor; he'd just been filming the delicate denouement to his latest oeuvre, Position Impossible II. But he ran out on to the balcony of his flat in Oslo's exclusive docklands apartment complex just in time to see a man turn and empty the clip of a .357 Magnum in the direction of a chasing security guard.

Hansen turned his camera and started to record the action taking place below.

Never has a national police department been so indebted to a porn star.

Down on the ground, one of Norway's most notorious criminals, Lars Harnes, reloaded and started running for the waterfront. Approaching sirens signalled that time was running out. Along with two accomplices, he had just robbed [pounds sterling] 500,000 from a money courier.

The trio, who were all armed and carrying holdalls stuffed with cash, were trying to make it to a getaway boat before the police cut them off.

Harnes, the blond, pony-tailed, tattooed leader of Norway's Bandidos motorcycle gang, had been granted prison leave only the previous week.

Somehow, despite being an exceptionally sadistic criminal, he had persuaded the authorities that he was a reformed character. He had even been allowed to shake the hand of Norway's prime minister as part of an anti-violence initiative. A curious choice, given that he had been jailed for six years for the savage torture of a 29-year-old man who owed him money.

Fellow Bandido Petter Tharaldsen fired a series of shots at the approaching police cars that had driven into the pedestrianised area. Acompact man with a goatee, Tharaldsen had a string of convictions for assault, shootings and robbery. Despite this, he too had managed to convince a court that he would behave while on bail awaiting trial for a 2002 security-van robbery.

When he ran out of bullets, he jumped into a canal and tried to swim for it, but soon gave up. Harnes and the third accomplice were also captured before they could reach their boat.

The police who collared them were well satisfied with their night's work.

But what they didn't realise was that the man they had fished out of the icy waters was behind one of the world's most astonishing art heists. Just eight days earlier, two thieves had stolen Edvard Munch's iconic painting The Scream from the wall of the Munch Museum in Oslo in broad daylight.

The theft hit the world's headlines and triggered the most expensive police operation in Norway's history. Sadly, as the team under the country's top detective Iver Stensrud battled to get to grips with the task confronting them, they had no idea that one of the culprits was right under their noses.

It is but one remarkable detail in a story so extraordinary - and,in parts, positively comedic - that a film about the heist is to be made, based on my own examination of the tale. I should explain I have made a career investigating some of the world's biggest crimes, from assassinations to drug smuggling and, most memorably, the attempted theft of [pounds sterling] 350 million worth of diamonds from the Millennium Dome in 2000. I can honestly say that none of the remarkable stories comes close to the tale of the theft of The Scream and the subsequent investigation.

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.

The circumstances of the theft had been embarrassing and, worse still, the paintings were not insured. The press were severely critical of museum security and derided the police for failing to respond quickly to the museum's alarm. The thieves had to be caught, the paintings recovered - fast.

'We had about 15 suspects, but finding proof was difficult,' Stensrud said.

'Nobody was talking and physical evidence was nowhere to be seen.'

Stensrud's first suspect was Paal Enger, a notorious art thief and self-confessed Munch obsessive. He had already been jailed for the 1988 theft of Munch's painting Vampire, and following his release from prison in 1994, he was commissioned to steal The Scream [a different version to the one taken in 2004] from the National Museum Of Art in Oslo. He would be well paid and his mystery employer didn't even want the painting - Enger could do what he liked with it. He gladly accepted.

Enger was eventually charged with the theft and sentenced to six-and a half years in prison. Although there were no Enger-style giveaways in the latest Munch theft, there were clues that pointed his way. The getaway vehicle had been dumped in the car park of a tennis club where Enger was a member; CCTV cameras showed him visiting the museum a few days earlier; and while Enger said he was with a friend at the time of the robbery, this friend lived only 200 metres from the museum.

Stensrud brought Enger in for questioning. He denied any involvement, and with no evidence, the police let him go. It looked as if they had picked up the wrong man, but Enger's arrest sparked a hunch. 'You can't sell The Scream; it's impossible,' said Stensrud. 'I reasoned there had to be a very particular reason for stealing it.' He recalled that Enger's 1994 theft of The Scream had been commissioned by a member of one of Norway's most notorious criminal gangs as a way of taking the heat off them - and it had worked. Could another version of the painting have been stolen for the same reason?

Stensrud contemplated his own four month investigation into the country's biggest heist, which had just been interrupted. This job had unfolded on April 5, 2004, in the sleepy city of Stavanger. The robbery had been well planned; the 11 thieves had blown up a lorry parked outside the local police station minutes before they raided the cash-sorting vault of Norway's largest money-transportation company.

One of the first police officers to arrive at the scene, Arne Klungland, 53, had been shot in the head by a gang member. The gang had then driven off, ditching their getaway cars at the edge of a forest, setting fire to them and disappearing on snowmobiles.

It was Norway's largest robbery. Only seven police officers have been killed on duty in post-war Norway, so Klungland's death meant that detective Stensrud was under huge pressure to come up with results.

Stensrud had been quick to deliver.

By July - one month before the theft of The Scream and Madonna - police had arrested and charged 18 people in connection with the heist. The key suspect, however, was still at large.

Stensrud believed the real mastermind behind the robbery was renowned criminal David Aleksander Toska.

An aristocratic, portly 28-year-old chess champion, Toska was well known as the leader of one of Europe's most vicious criminal gangs. He had already masterminded a safe-deposit-box robbery in 2001, which netted him [pounds sterling] 1.75 million, and a commando-style robbery on a bank in 2003. Could Toska have commissioned the raid on the Munch Museum in order to derail Stensrud's hunt for him? So convinced was Stensrud of the connection between the crimes that he set out to find a link. He spent hours watching CCTV footage of the museum raid. Suddenly he paused the tape. As part of his investigation into the Stavanger vault robbery, Stensrud had arrested a man who ran a shop that sold bulletproof vests and other supplies to Toska's gang. Now he saw the Munch robbers wore the same specialist gloves as Toska's men.

This discovery was quickly followed by another breakthrough. As Stensrud worked his way through 100-odd witness statements, he paused at the testimony of a Texan, who had told interviewers that he was certain the gun the robbers used was a Magnum .357, common in the US but rarely seen in Norway.

Police searched through all recorded gun crime looking for criminals who had used a .357. A few hours later they had a match - Petter Tharaldsen.

This was the same Petter Tharaldsen who had been dragged out of the water after stealing [pounds sterling] 500,000 from a money courier - and was still in custody. But Tharaldsen refused to talk, and his accomplice in that attack, Lars Harnes, gave him an alibi. He claimed they were together planning their cash heist at the time of the Scream raid.

While being questioned, Tharaldsen was offered some coffee in a paper cup.

In a move that was later to cause controversy, investigators took the cup and sent it for DNA testing in an effort to see whether it matched DNA recovered from the car used in the Munch robbery. It did - and further DNA evidence recovered from the getaway car linked the vehicle to a well-known car thief. Stensrud raided his apartment and arrested another three men. But, like Tharaldsen, none of them were prepared to talk about The Scream.

Stensrud was getting desperate. 'Time seemed to be running out,' he admitted.

Despite the arrests, nobody - not even the regular informers - would talk.

Police didn't have a clue where the paintings might be. The press, however, had no problem getting information from the criminal underworld and printed various headline stories, first that they had been irreparably damaged and then, to everyone's horror, that they had beenincinerated. 'I ignored these reports; we do not use newspapers as a reliable source here in Oslo,' said Stensrud dryly.

Instead, he focused on Tharaldsen, convinced he was the key to the location of the pictures. He checked on all of Tharaldsen's associates and came up with 30-year-old Stian Skjold.

A team of surveillance experts was scrambled to keep watch on him 24 hours a day. On September 24, 2004, they followed him to a farm where, incredibly, Stensrud's team spotted the second car used in the getaway from the Munch Museum. They watched as Skjold climbed on to a disused bus, reached under a seat and pulled out a rolled-up carpet. Inside was a plastic bin liner. He opened the bag, peered inside and lifted out the paintings. The police could hardly contain themselves.

While they decided on their next move, a second car drew up and parked out of view. Suddenly, the two cars sped off and split up. The surveillance officers were frantic. Which car were the paintings in? They decided to stick to their brief and followed Skjold. It was the wrong choice. The police had another man but they had lost the paintings. And to Stensrud's frustration their latest suspect also refused to talk.

Then, in April 2005, the break Stensrud needed finally came. Just as he had suspected, Toska, the head of the bank robbery, had used the diversion of The Scream to escape Norway for Malaga in Spain. But Malaga's police had been sent a copy of Toska's description and spotted him with a well-known drug dealer. On April 5, one year to the day after the vault robbery, armed police raided Toska's hotel room. Confronted with the evidence, Toska admitted taking part in the cash raid.

During his trial Toska ballooned; he consumed ingot-sized bars of chocolate during coffee breaks as he anxiously awaited the outcome. In March this year, he was found guilty and sentenced to 19 years in prison. Yet even in his cell Toska would not reveal what Stensrud suspected - that he had ordered the theft of the paintings.

Stensrud's only option was to move forward with what he had. He didn't have the paintings nor the main member of the team who stole them. He did, however, have enough evidence to prove Tharaldsen drove the getaway car.

Earlier this year, Tharaldsen was sentenced to eight years for hispart in the theft. Was this the end of the road?

Stensrud remained optimistic. 'At no point did I lose hope,' he said. 'I was certain we'd recover the paintings.' Seven weeks ago, in a bizarre international promotional stunt, the makers of M&M's sweets made an announcement: 'Heralding the arrival of M&M's Dark Chocolate candies, the brand is offering a reward of two million M&M's for the return of The Scream.' The next day, the press reported that Toska's legal team had been negotiating with Norway's top prosecutor regarding a possible return of the Munchs.

According to criminal sources, Toska had only just learnt of the location himself. The man who had driven the pictures from the farm under the nose of Stensrud's team had been Toska's best friend and an accomplice in the vault robbery. To date he had evaded the police. However, he had since developed terminal cancer and, from his deathbed, he told Toska's girlfriend where the paintings were hidden.

Toska offered to reveal the location of the world-famous pictures in return for conjugal visits from his girlfriend, better prison conditions, a lighter sentence for a friend and no life sentences for any of his conspirators. The police would only offer him slightly improved prison conditions. Toska decided to divulge the paintings' location anyway.

Ingebjorg Ydstie, acting director of the Munch Museum, was at homeon August 30 when she answered the telephone. It was Stensrud. 'We've got them,' he said. Ydstie recalls, 'I couldn't speak. It was a moment of pure joy.' When she arrived at the police station, Ydstie was rushed to the basement where, laid out on a cloth-covered table, were two of the world's most prized paintings. The Scream had come home.

The details of the recovery of the paintings must remain secret for now as the hunt for the final robber continues.

All that can be revealed is that it was simply a matter of collecting them from a secret location and returning them to the police HQ.

The pictures then went for forensic examination, supervised by a team of art experts. Madonna has two one-inch tears in it, while some of the paint has peeled off The Scream and there is a little damage in one corner. There are also fears that The Scream may have suffered irreparable moisture damage. Last week, they went on display in Oslo for five days before being taken to restorers.

The manufacturers of M&M's have promised to honour their reward. It is not clear whether they have been in contact with chocaholic Toska.

And as for the identity of the final robber, that also remains a mystery.

Underworld sources hint that it was Toska's best friend who died of cancer.

But Stensrud, now assistant chief of police, is unconvinced. Tharaldsen's accomplice in the attack on the money courier, Harnes, is currently serving four years in jail for the crime and will soon be a free man. The police will be taking a very close interest in his post-prison activities.

Paal Enger denies any involvement and Stensrud now believes him. The Munch obsessive has since set himself up as a legitimate art dealer and achieved a lifetime's ambition when he bought an unsigned Munch lithograph.

He was complimented on his purchase by the former head of securityat the National Museum Of Art, who told him, 'Congratulations! You've actually bought a Munch. So much better than stealing one.' *


1988 Vampire, stolen by former footballer Paal Enger, was recovered from his bedroom wall.

1990 Madonna taken from Norway's National Museum Of Art. It was recovered but the thief was never caught.

1993 Portrait Study stolen from Norway's National Museum Of Art. Still missing.

1994 Enger strikes again, stealing The Scream from Norway's National Museum Of Art. The painting was recovered.

2004 A bust of Munch was stolen from his grave. Still missing.

2004 Three lithographs stolen from a hotel. Recovered less than 24 hours later.

2004 The Scream and Madonna stolen from the Munch Museum.

2005 Men raid the Oslo Hotel Continental but the original Munch paintings had been replaced by reproductions. 'They didn't understand why we were laughing at them,' recalled the hotel's manager.

Ken Bates On February 5, in an article by Tom Bower, we said Ken Bates, former chairman of Chelsea FC, had refused to pay commission of [pounds sterling] 3 million to the agent Pini Zahavi over the sale of the club to Roman Abramovich and was 'gleeful' at the prospect of obtaining [pounds sterling] 18 million for his shares. We now accept that Mr Zahavi was never Mr Bates's agent and Mr Bates was under no obligation to pay any commission.

We also accept that Mr Bates had a long personal commitment to Chelsea and sold his shares regretfully. We apologise to Mr Bates for the distress and embarrassment caused.