PARIS — Wearing ski masks and dark clothes, three robbers walked into a private Zurich museum shortly before it closed Sunday afternoon and in three minutes made off with four of its most valuable paintings, Swiss police said Monday. The works by Cezanne, Degas, Van Gogh and Monet are worth an estimated $163.2 million.
One of the robbers forced visitors and employees to lie on the ground at gunpoint, while the other two grabbed the 19th century treasures, which were hanging next to one another in the large exhibition hall of the E.G. Buehrle Collection, located in a quiet lakeside neighborhood.
"These people knew exactly where to go," Lukas Gloor, the museum's director, said in a phone interview. "They entered the room with our most valuable paintings and simply emptied two walls."
The robbers fled in a white van with a painting possibly sticking out of the back, said Judith Hoedel, a police spokeswoman. One of the three spoke German with a heavy Slavic accent, she said.
It was among the largest art thefts in European history, and perhaps the highest-profile since Edvard Munch's "The Scream" was stolen in Norway in 2004. The Zurich art's value appears less than that of the benchmark heist in 1990 of 12 works from Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. At the time, that art was said to be worth $200 million, and included Rembrandts and a Vermeer.
The Zurich works came from the collection of the late Emil Georg Buehrle, a German industrialist based in Switzerland who built his fortune selling arms to both the Nazi and Allied forces during World War II. A onetime art student, Buehrle amassed one of Europe's great Impressionist and early modern collections after the war, acquiring in 1948 the celebrated "Boy in the Red Waistcoat" -- the Paul Cezanne painting stolen Sunday. In 1960, four years after he died, Buehrle's family created a foundation in his name and opened a museum in a 19th century villa just next to his home, according to the museum's website.
The museum is offering a reward of $90,000 for information leading to the recovery of the paintings. Also stolen were Edgar Degas' "Ludovic Lepic and his Daughters," Claude Monet's "Poppy Field at Vetheuil," and Vincent van Gogh's "Blooming Chestnut Branches." Gloor said it's difficult to place a value on such unique paintings. "The numbers we're using are insurance values on the idea that you could actually replace these with a substitute. Which you can't. So it's all just theoretical."
A security alarm apparently went off as soon as the artworks, which were hung behind glass, were touched, the police spokeswoman said. Police arrived quickly, but the burglars were already gone, and about 15 visitors on an upper floor remained unaware of what had happened, she said.
Police are also investigating whether another theft last week in Switzerland of two paintings by Pablo Picasso is related to Sunday's crime. Those paintings, "Tete de Cheval" ("Horse's Head") and "Verre et Pichet ("Glass and Pitcher"), were snatched from a small exhibition hall about 20 miles from Zurich.
It is hard to imagine how stolen paintings as recognizable as Cezanne's boy in red or Monet's poppy fields could be sold without leading investigators to the burglars.
Experts say some thieves seek ransom from museums; others attempt to collect a reward from the museum's insurance company; and still others are willing to receive a fraction of the art's value by selling to an unscrupulous dealer. Some thieves have been known to use art as collateral for a drug or arms deal, according to Chris Marinello, general counsel of the Art Loss Register, a London-based organization that records art thefts and helps retrieve stolen paintings.
"It's really hard to tell what paintings as well known as these will go for," said Marinello. "We've seen prices for Cezannes, for example, go for $40 and $50 million at auction. But it's a different story on the black market."
It often takes years to recover high-profile art and in only about 20% of the cases do stolen works get filtered back to their rightful owners, Marinello said.
Many of the biggest art thefts have occurred at homes, smaller galleries and intimate museums like the Buehrle with high-value items displayed in a relatively low-security setting.
But such settings often enhance the quality of a museum visit. "I love the Buehrle because it's one of the most intimate experiences you get, seeing great paintings in a house like that," said Colin Bailey, chief curator of Manhattan's Frick Collection, also housed in an old mansion. "The Buehrle still has that sense of a villa on the outskirts of Zurich where rooms are cozy. . . . When you see these masterpieces that resonate off the walls, it's very exciting." But, he added, it is "every curator's worse nightmare to have such a theft."
"We guard. We conserve. We are very attentive," he said. "But how people get in with guns, well, I don't know."