Cairo, Egypt: Egypt Jails Five Officials in Van Gogh Theft Probe

Egypt Jails Five Officials in Van Gogh Theft Probe

August 23, 2010, 11:57 AM EDT

By Alaa Shahine

(Updates with more officials detained in third paragraph, culture minister’s comment in sixth.)

Aug. 23 (Bloomberg) — Egypt’s public prosecutor has ordered the detention of a culture ministry official pending a investigation into the theft of a $55 million painting by Vincent van Gogh, the state-run Middle East News Agency reported.

The painting, which is titled “Poppy Flowers” or “Vase of Flowers” was declared missing from the Mohamed Mahmoud Khalil Museum in Cairo on Aug. 21.

Prosecutor Abdel-Meguid Mahmoud also ordered the four-day detention of four museum employees, the news agency reported today, without saying how it obtained the information. The five are accused of negligence, according to the report.

The painting is one of 304 oil paintings and 50 sculptures in the three-story museum, which was built on the Nile in 1920 as the residence of Egyptian art collector Khalil. The most conservative estimate of the value of the collection is 7 billion Egyptian pounds ($1.2 billion), according to a government website. The museum features a number of prominent European artists including Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Paul Gauguin and Claude Monet.

Egypt, which boasts some of the world’s most renowned antiquities, such as the golden mask of the Pharaoh Tutankhamun, has been restoring many of its cultural attractions in an attempt to boost revenue from tourism, which brought in $10.76 billion in income last year, according to the Tourism Ministry.

Poor Security

Security at many sites remains poor, say officials. The theft “took place in broad daylight,” Culture Minister Faruq Hosni said in an interview aired today by Dubai-based Al Arabiya television. Only seven out of 43 security cameras were functioning and none of the alarms attached to the museum’s paintings was working, the public prosecutor told reporters yesterday at the museum.

The robbers climbed on a sofa and cut the picture out of its frame, the state-run news agency reported yesterday, saying security agencies at Egypt’s airports and borders had been put on alert. The public prosecutor has ordered the release on bail of three other people, including the director of the museum, it said.

The same van Gogh painting was stolen in 1978 and was recovered two years later from an undisclosed location in Kuwait, the Associated Press reported.

Posthumous Fame

Failing to achieve popularity as an artist in his lifetime, Vincent van Gogh committed suicide in 1890 at the age of 37. His paintings have become among the world’s most valuable since his death. “Portrait of Dr. Gachet” sold at Christie’s International Plc for $82.5 million in 1990, making it the most expensive artwork to sell at auction at the time. The previous record for a work at auction was his “Irises,” which sold for $53.9 million.

Van Gogh’s paintings have been frequent targets of art thieves. “Blossoming Chestnut Branches” was one of four paintings stolen from a Zurich museum in February 2008.

Khalil was an Egyptian parliamentarian in the 1930s and 1940s. The mansion and the art collection were bequeathed to the state in his will, the government says. Khalil, who studied law at the Sorbonne University in France, died in Paris in 1953.

–Editors: Digby Lidstone, Heather Langan.

To contact the reporter on this story: Alaa Shahine in Cairo at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Beech at

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