The empty space where Henri Matisse' painting "La Liseuse en Blanc et Jaune" was hanging, right, is seen at Kunsthal museum in Rotterdam, Netherlands. Photo: AP
BRUSSELS: The Rotterdam museum that fell victim to world's biggest art robbery in years has admitted to Dutch police that there were no security guards on duty when thieves stole seven paintings worth up to $125 million.
The thieves were able to operate without fear of interruption for up to 35 minutes because they knew there were no guards in the Kunsthal museum.
"There was no one in the building and an external security firm went to the Kunsthal when the alarm went off," a police spokesman told the RTV broadcaster. "They discovered the break-in and warned us."
La Liseuse en Blanc et Jaune by Henri Matisse, one of the stolen works. Photo: AFP
The stolen paintings, including works by Picasso, Monet and Matisse, were from the Triton Foundation art collection, which had never been exhibited before and were on display as part of the museum's 20th anniversary celebrations.
The museum's director, Emily Ansenk, tried to justify the decision, taken in consultation with insurers, to use alarms and security cameras instead of hiring people to guard the premises. "This means we use cameras and an alarm system but no people. We have state-of-the-art security," she said.
Dutch security experts criticised the open-plan layout of the museum, which meant that once the thieves were inside there were no barriers – allowing access to the whole gallery.
A former director of the museum, Wim van Krimpen, admitted the thieves were able to "cherry pick" pictures, increasing suspicion that the paintings might have been stolen to order. "The pieces they robbed were not hung together. They made a careful, informed choice," he said.
Police, who have put 25 detectives on the case, the same number usually used for a murder investigation, said it was still unclear how the thieves entered the building.
Surveillance images from the night of the break-in have failed to provide any clear leads.
The Kunsthal reopened yesterday, including the Avant-gardes gallery from which the paintings were stolen.