Made-to-Order Theft of Italian Masterpieces

VERONA -- Masterpieces by Rubens and Tintoretto were among 15 artworks stolen 'to order' by masked robbers from a museum in Verona, the city's mayor said Friday.

Three men dressed in black entered the Castelvecchio museum in northern Italy at the evening change of guard on Thursday, tying up and gagging the site's security officer and a cashier before nabbing the paintings.

Their haul included "Portrait of a Lady" by Flemish Baroque painter Peter Paul Rubens and "Male Portrait" by Venetian artist Tintoretto, as well as works by Pisanello, Jacopo Bellini, Giovanni Francesco Caroto and Hans de Jode.

The museum told art investigators the works were worth an estimated 15 million euros ($16.05 million), adding that it looked like the job had likely been masterminded by a private collector.

Art collectors of ArtKabinett social media network know that it will be very hard for the thief to sell these well-known works on the open market.

"Someone sent them, they were skilled, they knew exactly where they were going," mayor Flavio Tosi said, adding that 11 of the paintings stolen had been masterpieces while others were more minor works.

Roberto Bolis from the council's press office said the museum had 24-hour security but the robbery had been planned so that the thieves arrived after the building emptied but before the alarms had been activated.

"We don't yet know if they were armed, or whether they took the security officer's weapon," he said, adding that both the guard and cashier were in shock and were being debriefed by investigators.

'Robbers' brutality'
"They tied up the security officer as well and took his keys so they could get away in his car," he said.

One of the men watched over the hostages while the other two raided the exhibition rooms.

"It was only once they were able to untie themselves that the alarm was raised," Bolis added.

Mayor Tosi told journalists the security officer thought the robbers "appeared foreign, based on the few words they let slip, though they did not speak among themselves at all".

The museum is housed in a 14th-century castle but investigators said the security system was state-of-the-art. Footage from the 48 cameras installed in and around the premises has been handed over to police.

The museum's director Paola Marini described the theft as "an immense loss".

Some of the paintings were removed from their frames, others no. A work by Italian Renaissance painter Guilio Licinio, 'The Conversion of Saul', was discarded, damaged, in a corner.

"The damage to the Licinio, which was near the Tintoretto painting, is not serious. It will be easily restored. But it demonstrates the robbers' brutality", Marini said.

Italian art critic Vittorio Sgarbi told Rai News he "wouldn't rule out it being a jihadist act, because this theft is a real mutilation of a museum... a real disaster for Italian art".

"Only an idiot would steal such similar paintings which are unsellable, and this makes you think that it was a theft to ask for a ransom or a jihadist act," he said, slamming it as "one of the most serious thefts of Italian art in history".

Today's homepage Featured Art Video explores the collection of the Museum Castelvecchio in Verona. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ngvJlbxUWx8&sns=em