Van Gogh theft: Alarms at Cairo museum 'out of order'

CAIRO, Aug 22, 2010 (AFP) - Security cameras and alarms at the museum in Cairo from where a Van Gogh painting valued at more than 50 million dollars was stolen had been out of order "for a long time," an official said on Sunday.

"The cameras had not been working for a long time, and neither had the alarm system," the security official told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity, adding that no image of the painting was therefore available.

"We don't exactly know how long they had been out of order, but it was a long time. 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 said.

AFP FILES--An Egyptian looks on March 03 1998, at one of the 30 so-called Fayyum portraits on display at the Mahmoud Khalil Museum of Modern Art in Cairo. AFP

The work identified as Poppy Flowers and valued at more than 50 million dollars, was stolen from the Mahmoud Khalil museum on Saturday, after it was cut out of its frame.

Culture Minister Farouq Hosni announced on Saturday evening that Egyptian police had arrested two Italians 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.

It was not immediately clear why the Italians were arrested and whether they had been freed.

Mohsen Shaalan, the official who had said the painting was in the possession of police at Cairo airport, switched off his cellphone and could not be reached for comment.

Security officials also refused to comment on Hosni's statement. One 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.

Italy's domestic ANSA news agency, citing what it called "information gathered at the scene," said the two Italians were young and that they had visited the museum with a group of Spanish and Russian tourists.

The painting of the yellow and red flowers in a vase had been stolen before in 1977, and was returned to the museum a decade later.

Other news