Stolen Picassos, Portinaris returned

January 10, 2008 9:36:36 AM PST
Stolen paintings by Pablo Picasso and Candido Portinari returned home to applause on Wednesday while police tried to find out who masterminded the robbery. The paintings, worth millions of dollars, were recovered Tuesday when a suspect led police to a house on the outskirts of Sao Paulo, said chief police inspector Mauricio Lemos Freire.

A helicopter and more than a dozen police vehicles escorted the small truck carrying Picasso's "Portrait of Suzanne Bloch" by Picasso and "O Lavrador de Cafe" by Portinari, an influential Brazilian artist, back to the Sao Paulo Museum of Art.

Museum employees and onlookers applauded when the paintings arrived.

Two suspects were in custody and the Estado de S. Paulo newspaper reported they had been promised a total of $2.8 million for the heist.

The newspaper also said museum officials received two ransom requests for the paintings, including a letter asking for $10 million. Freire and museum president Julio Neves said they would not comment on the newspaper reports.

Neves confirmed the works, which were found covered in plastic leaning against a wall inside the house, were in perfect condition and will be on exhibition in their old locations when the museum reopens on Friday with improved security.

Eventually, the museum will install security and surveillance equipment equivalent to that at Paris' Louvre museum, Neves said.

Three robbers armed only with a crowbar and a car jack seized the paintings on Dec. 20 as unarmed museum guards were changing shifts.

"It's obvious the two did not steal the paintings for themselves," Freire said. "They did it for someone else. The focus of the investigation now is to find out for whom."

Neves said the museum is upgrading its security system. Art experts estimate the value of the Picasso at about $50 million and the Portinari at $5-6 million.

Picasso painted "Portrait of Suzanne Bloch" in 1904 during his Blue Period. "O Lavrador de Cafe," which depicts a coffee picker, was painted in 1939 and is one of Portinari's most renowned works.

The thieves ignored other important works in the Sao Paulo museum, including Pierre-Auguste Renoir's "Bather with a Griffon Dog," Vincent Van Gogh's "L'Arlesienne" and Henri Matisse's "Plaster Torso and Bouquet of Flowers."

Last year, a gang used a carnival street parade to cover the theft of four paintings from a Rio de Janeiro museum. Those works, valued at around $40 million, have never been recovered.


Associated Press Writer Tales Azzoni in Sao Paulo contributed to this report.