September 16, 2005

Missing Rembrandt, Renoir masterpieces recovered

By Laura Vinha and Steve Gorman

COPENHAGEN/LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Two art masterpieces --
a self-portrait of 17th-century Dutch artist Rembrandt and a
painting by French impressionist Pierre-August Renoir -- stolen
from Sweden's National Museum five years ago have been
recovered, Danish and U.S. officials said on Friday.

The recovery of the multimillion-dollar artworks in an
international undercover operation means all three paintings
stolen in the daring December 2000 heist have now been found.

Four men -- two Iraqis, a Gambian and a Swede -- were
arrested by Danish police in a sting operation on Thursday
while showing the $40 million Rembrandt to a potential buyer at
a Copenhagen hotel, Danish police said.

"We have recovered the painting during a planned action,"
police spokesman Flemming Steen Munch told Reuters in
Copenhagen, adding that the four men would be held in custody
for 13 days pending further investigation.

Renoir's "A Young Parisienne," stolen from the Swedish
museum along with the Rembrandt and valued at $13 million, was
recovered in the United States a few months ago as part of the
same undercover operation, but the news was kept quiet as
agents pursued the final missing masterpiece, U.S. law
enforcement officials disclosed on Friday.

"We recovered Renoir's 'Young Parisienne' earlier this year
in Los Angeles, but did not divulge the development because the
investigation was ongoing, and there was hope that ultimately
the investigators would be able to recover the Rembrandt
self-portrait, which happened this week," a federal law
enforcement official told Reuters.

The official said the painting appeared to be in excellent
condition. "They were going to try to resell it."

The official declined to say whether any arrests had been
made in Los Angeles.


Both works were snatched from the museum on Stockholm's
waterfront by an armed gang that entered the building just
before closing time in December 2000.

While one man brandished a sub-machine gun in the lobby,
two others seized the paintings from the second floor. As they
escaped, scattering spikes on the road to delay pursuers, two
cars exploded nearby, creating a diversion. The men then made
off in a small boat which was later recovered.

The third painting stolen in that heist, Renoir's
"Conversation," was recovered by Swedish police in 2001.

News of the Rembrandt recovery broke first, and was well
received in Sweden. Asked how she felt on hearing of the
recovery, Gorel Cavalli-Bjorkman, head of research at Sweden's
National Museum and a Rembrandt expert, told Reuters: "I jumped
with joy!"

"I had expected it would be recovered at some point, I was
just hoping we would get it back before I retired," she said.

Danish police spokesman Munch said the painting seemed to
be in good condition, but Cavalli-Bjorkman said the museum's
art restorer would undertake a closer examination.

There was no immediate reaction to the Renoir recovery.

There have been several high-profile art robberies in the
Nordics in recent years. A version of Norwegian artist Edvard
Munch's "The Scream" was stolen from an Oslo museum last year
in a case that has baffled the country and led to an abundance
of conspiracy theories.

That painting is still missing.

(Additional reporting by Niklas Pollard in Stockholm, Per
Thomsen in Copenhagen and Caroline Drees in Washington)