€309m art stolen in moments
Willem Cordia, a shipping-to-textiles mogul who gained the nickname the "Onassis of Rotterdam", spent 20 years becoming one of the world's biggest art collectors, amassing 250 works by some of the most illustrious names in painting.
It took audacious thieves a matter of moments to put a €309m hole in that carefully crafted portfolio when seven canvases by artists from Picasso to Lucian Freud were ripped from the walls of an art gallery in the Dutch mega-port shortly after 3am on Monday.
The theft, which ranks as one of the biggest in recent history, took place just days after the first large-scale exhibition of works from the late Mr Cordia's private collection -- known as the Triton Foundation -- had opened at Rotterdam's Kunsthal Museum.
While experts last night said it was likely the paintings would be held to ransom, Dutch police were still trying to piece together how the thieves had entered the gallery, beating a top-of-the-range security system and leaving behind no obvious trace of a forced entry before swiping the works, some of which could be seen from the street.
By the time officers arrived following a call from the museum's alarm system monitoring company, the art burglars had long gone, along with their haul.
A spokesman for Rotterdam Police, Roland Ekkers, said: "The alarm system in the Kunsthal was supposed to be state-of-the-art. But somehow the people responsible for this found a way in and a way out and they found time to take seven paintings. So that's something that is part of our investigation right now."
It seems the targets were also chosen well: Pablo Picasso's 1971 Harlequin Head; Claude Monet's 1901 Waterloo Bridge, London and Charing Cross Bridge, London; Paul Gaugin's 1898 Girl in Front of Open Window; Henri Matisse's 1919 Reading Girl in White and Yellow; An 1890 self-portrait by Meyer de Haan; and Lucian Freud's 2002 Woman with Eyes Closed.
The paintings were part of a blockbuster show to mark the 20th anniversary of the Kunsthal, which does not have a permanent collection and operates with rotating temporary exhibitions. More than 150 works -- two-thirds of the Cordia collection -- were on display.
Experts said the raid went against a broad trend which had seen a decline in the sort of daring heist on the world's museums, epitomised by the most expensive art theft in history, committed in 1990 at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, Massachusetts. The 13 stolen works, including paintings by Rembrandt and Vermeer, were worth €371m at the time and have never been recovered.
Improved security has seen the percentage of loss recorded by insurers on artwork premiums fall from an average of 52pc in the past 15 years to its current level of 35pc, but a spate of high-profile thefts could see premiums creep back up.
Richard Nicholson at the specialist insurance brokers Willis said: "These paintings will be completely unsellable on the open market. But the idea that these thefts are carried out to order for some tycoon is a bit of a myth.
"It is much more likely they will be held to ransom to extract a payment from the insurers. Even then, this can be difficult.
"In a lot of countries, including Britain, such payments are illegal unless agreed with police and prosecutors.
"There is nothing glamorous about this -- at the end of the food chain you find some pretty unsavoury characters.". (© Independent News Service)