AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - Thieves made off with paintings by Picasso, Matisse, Monet and other prominent modern artists from Rotterdam's Kunsthal museum early on Tuesday in a brazen and meticulously planned operation.
The seven stolen works, which also include a Gauguin, a Lucian Freud and a Meyer de Haan, are thought to be worth tens of millions of dollars.
Dutch police investigating the overnight heist have yet to put a price on the paintings, and few details have emerged about how they were removed from the museum designed by Rem Koolhaas.
But the theft is one of the art world's most dramatic in recent years, and one of the biggest ever in the Netherlands.
Roland Ekkers, a spokesman for Rotterdam police, said they received a call alerting them to the theft at around 3 a.m. local time on Tuesday.
"The alarm system in the Kunsthal was supposed to be state of the art," Ekkers said.
"But somehow the people responsible for this found a way in and a way out and they found time to take seven paintings. So that's something that is part of our investigation right now."
The works stolen were Picasso's "Tête d'Arlequin", Matisse's "La Liseuse en Blanc et Jaune", Monet's "Waterloo Bridge, London" and "Charing Cross Bridge, London", Gauguin's "Femme devant une fenêtre ouverte", De Haan's "Autoportrait" and Freud's "Woman with Eyes Closed".
Jop Ubbens, chairman of Christie's in Amsterdam, told Reuters the paintings would be worth "more than several million euros," with the Picasso the best known of the stolen works.
"It's all about name and fame. So the Picasso is the best known. The least well-known is Meyer de Haan, which looks like a Gauguin, so maybe it was a mistake," he added.
Ubbens said the art heist was one of the biggest in the country, but "not as big as The Scream", referring to the work by Edvard Munch, a version of which was stolen from a museum in Oslo in 2004 but later recovered.
In 2010, five paintings were stolen from the Musee d'Art Moderne in Paris including a Picasso and Matisse and estimated to be worth a combined $124 million.
QUICK RECOVERY POSSIBLE
Experts said it would be next to impossible for the thieves to sell such well-known works on the open market, increasing the chances of their recovery in a relatively short period of time.
"They are going to learn very quickly that these things cannot be sold," said Christopher Marinello, executive director of The Art Loss Register, which helps track down stolen works of art.
"They don't even think about it sometimes. They may try and call and entice a ransom," he told Reuters.
He added, however, that it was unlikely the works had been stolen "to order" from a wealthy collector, dismissing such theories as the realm of Hollywood.
"I'm confident these will find their way back," he said. "The police in this area are very good, very well organized. I would not be surprised to see them surfacing over the next few weeks."
The Art Loss Register, the world's largest private database for lost or stolen art, has assisted in recovering over $250 million worth of items. But Marinello warned that not every heist had a happy ending.
The theft in 1990 of artworks estimated to be worth $500 million, including rare paintings by Rembrandt and Vermeer, from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston remains arguably the biggest unsolved art heist of all.
The Kunsthal, which does not have its own collection, had just opened a new exhibition to celebrate its 20th anniversary.
The show included paintings by Picasso, Duchamp, Mondrian, Monet, Van Gogh, Freud, and other examples of impressionism, expressionism, and other modern art movements.
More than 150 paintings on display in the exhibit came from the private Triton Foundation collection, and many of the works are worth over a million euros, the Kunsthal's former executive Wim van Krimpen told Dutch public radio station Radio 1.
The collection was put together by the Cordia family, which made its fortune in shipping and oil and which ranks among the 100 richest families in the Netherlands, according to Dutch media.
The family is estimated to own about 330 million euros' worth of assets, according to Dutch magazine Quote, which makes lists similar to U.S. magazine Forbes's ranking of billionaires.
The Kunsthal was closed to the public on Tuesday.
(Reporting by Gilbert Kreijger, additional reporting by Sara Webb and Anthony Deutsch in Amersterdam and Mike Collett-White in London; Editing by Paul Casciato, Mike Collett-White and Giles Elgood)