International Papers

The Scream Affair

Robbers make off with Munch’s masterpiece.

The stolen Scream
The stolen Scream

Newspapers across Europe addressed the brazen heist Sunday of two famed Expressionist paintings from the Edvard Munch Museum in Oslo, Norway. Norway’s Aftenposten described the mayhem: Several armed, hooded thieves stormed into the museum, threatened security guards and visitors, tore two of Munch’s most famous works— The Scream and Madonna—from the walls, then ran out to a waiting car.

An Oslo gallery spokesman told the paper that Madonna is worth as much as $22 million while The Scream could be valued as high as $52 million. (Other sources say The Scream could fetch as much as $100 million.)

The stolen Scream is one of four versions painted by Norwegian artist. The Munch Museum houses two of them, a third is in a private collection, and the fourth is in Oslo’s National Gallery, from which it was stolen a decade ago. In that instance, the government refused the thieves’ demand for $1 million for the painting’s return, and it was rescued three months later.

Officials expect to receive a ransom demand this time, too. France’s Liberation noted that The Scream has “the honor, or perhaps the curse” of being “instantly recognizable almost anywhere on the planet.” (Translation from French courtesy of BBC Monitoring.) The Independent of Britain noted that the paintings are so famous that selling them would be nearly impossible.

The Guardianof Britain said that such bold heists pose a severe challenge to museums and galleries:

Armed robberies are highly unusual in galleries and the daylight attack raises fears that more costly forms of protection may be needed. … The art world has traditionally taken precautions to defeat the guile of cat burglars rather than aggressive smash and grab operations.

Others said security at the museum was exceptionally lax. The Daily Mirror of Britain quoted a tourist who witnessed the theft who said: “There weren’t any proper means of protection for the paintings—no alarm bells. They were simply attached by wires. All you had to do was pull hard for the cord to break loose, which is what they did.” The Guardian recalled that in the previous theft of a version of The Scream, a decade ago, the thieves, who broke a window and stole the painting while the National Gallery was closed, left a postcard featuring three laughing men with the inscription “Thanks for the poor security!”

The latest heist indicates security measures have not improved. Austria’s Die Presse decried the circumstances that allowed Sunday’s theft to take place. “If priceless paintings are kept behind bullet-proof glass, then they become less attractive targets,” the paper said. “Nobody would secure an antique gold treasure with a velvet cord.” (Translation from German courtesy of Deutsche Welle.)

But the Daily Telegraph’s art critic noted that “even the most meticulously guarded museums are vulnerable to well-planned thefts. Two van Goghs were stolen from the van Gogh museum in Amsterdam in 2002, despite that museum’s elaborate high-tech security system.” However, he added, when he visited the Munch Museum a few weeks before the theft, he was struck by the “informal, improvised air.”

The critic recounted his visit, where he talked to one of the museum’s curators—”a phlegmatic fellow in a short-sleeved denim shirt, denim jeans and socks and sandals”—about the museum’s plans to lend The Scream to the National Galley of Victoria, in Australia. The curator seemed surprised that his museum had agreed to lend the valuable, fragile work of art. In typical British understatement, the art critic surmised, “He may now be wishing it had left a few weeks earlier.”