Bare walls, soft security in Zurich museum missing $160 million of paintings

.ZURICH, Switzerland (AP) – Only scratches remain on the white walls where the four Impressionist masterpieces once hung. No metal detectors, no armed guards, no cameras were in sight Tuesday, underscoring just how vulnerable many of Europe’s small museums are to thieves enticed by soaring art prices.

The robbers who carried out one of Europe’s most dramatic art heists are likely criminals with no art expertise or understanding of how difficult it is to sell such famous paintings, experts said Tuesday. The stolen works by Cezanne, Degas, van Gogh and Monet are worth $163.2 million.

Karl-Heinz Kind, an art theft expert at Interpol, said part of the problem is the appeal of museums like the E.G. Buehrle Collection, with its accessibility and atmosphere encouraging reflection and appreciation.

“A museum or a church is not made to be a prison,” Kind said in a telephone interview from Lyon, France, where Interpol has its headquarters.

“You can imagine screening luggage or clothes under machines, or X-raying them. You could imagine in churches or cathedrals to put the statues of saints behind iron bars. That would certainly increase security. But is it really the purpose of a museum?” he said.

Marco Cortesi of the Zurich police noted the robbery Sunday took less than three minutes, carried out by gunmen in ski masks who burst into the museum just before closing time. While one trained a pistol on museum personnel ordered to lie on the floor, two others collected the paintings and sped off with them.

“In Europe we just didn’t have to plan for such an attack on a museum,” Cortesi said.

The Buehrle’s security included burglar alarms to protect against break-ins during the night and an alarm system that sounded at the police station if a picture was moved. But that was clearly not enough.

“The museum has state-of-the-art security against theft, but not against armed robbery,” said museum director Lukas Gloor as he showed reporters the collection, one of Europe’s finest for 19th century and 20th century art.

Gloor said the museum was reconsidering its security, including limiting visits to groups by prior arrangement. But he said he feared going too far.

Experts dismissed any suggestion the robbers knew what they were doing, saying they appeared to be opportunists looking for easy pickings and unaware it is virtually impossible to sell such famous works.