CAIRO (AFP) – Egypt on Sunday stepped up the search for a Van Gogh painting valued at 55 million dollars stolen in broad daylight from a Cairo museum where the surveillance cameras and alarms had long been defunct.
The work identified as “Poppy Flowers” was stolen from the Mahmoud Khalil museum on Saturday after it was cut out of its frame.
Police were focusing their search on the country’s air and sea ports, a security official told AFP, adding that museum staff will be interrogated and that state prosecutors have launched two separate investigations.
The official said security cameras and alarms at the museum had long been out of order.
“The cameras had not been working for a long time, and neither had the alarm system,” he said.
“The museum officials said they were looking for spare parts (for the security system) but hadn’t managed to find them,” by the time the theft took place, he added.
Prosecutor General Abdel Meguid Mahmud acknowledged that security measures at the museum were “inadequate,” labelling them “a facade.”
“There are 43 security cameras but only seven are working. Each painting is protected by an alarm but again, none are working,” he told reporters.
Mahmud put the estimated value of the stolen painting at around 55 million dollars (43 million euros).
He added that the state prosecution had put out a general warning of the need to increase security after nine paintings were stolen in March last year from Mohammed Ali Pasha’s palace, a museum on the banks of the Nile in northern Cairo.
Culture Minister Farouq Hosni announced on Saturday evening that two Italians had been arrested at Cairo airport trying to smuggle the painting out of the country.
But he later backtracked on the claim, publicly admitting that the authorities were still working to retrieve the picture and blaming a subordinate for giving “inaccurate” information.
Mohsen Shaalan, the official who had said the painting was in the possession of police at Cairo airport, switched off his cellphone on Saturday evening and could not be reached for comment.
The security official reached by AFP on Sunday first confirmed the arrests of the two Italians and and then later denied them, blaming Shaalan for the confusion.
Another official described the incident as “embarrassing and chaotic.”
Hosni had earlier said the museum, located in the middle and upperclass district of Dokki on the Nile and which also has works by Monet, Renoir and Degas, was visited by only 10 people on Saturday.
The painting of the yellow and red flowers in a vase had been stolen before, in 1977, but was found the following year.
Van Gogh paintings have been the target of thieves in other museums. In 2008, a painting by Van Gogh and three by other artists were stolen from a Swiss museum in a 130-million-dollar heist.
Trade in artefacts is a lucrative business in heritage-rich Egypt. A police official had earlier said the thieves would probably try to smuggle the painting out of the country