Brazen thievery seems to be a theme this weekend. A painting by Van Gogh knows as Poppy Flowers or Vase with Flowers was stolen Saturday from the Mahmoud Khalil Museum in Cairo. Thieves cut it out of the frame with box cutters.
The work, measuring 30cm by 30cm (1ft by 1ft), depicts yellow and red flowers and resembles a scene painted by the French artist Adolphe Monticelli, whose work deeply affected the young Vincent Van Gogh. The Monticelli painting also is part of the Khalil collection.
Van Gogh is believed to have been painted the canvas in 1887, three years before his death from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Egypt’s minister of culture, Farouk Hosni, mistakenly announced yesterday that suspects had been apprehended at the airport and the painting secured, but he retracted that claim today stating he had been given false information. The painting is still at large, and authorities are on red alert to find the $50 million masterpiece before it skips town.
This isn’t the first time Poppy Flowers has been stolen from the Khalil Museum. The last time was in 1978. It was found 2 years later in Kuwait under circumstances never fully explained. There was talk at the time that the painting might have been copied during its 2-year sabbatical, and even whispers that what the museum got back was one of those copies, not the original Van Gogh.
The second theft might put those rumors to rest, at any rate, since the looters obviously thought it was the real deal. Anyway the Khalil has a lot bigger fish to fry now. Prosecutor general Abdel-Meguid Mahmoud puts the blame for this theft squarely on the museum’s security system, which is shockingly lax. None of the alarms in the entire museum are currently functional, and only 7 of the 43 surveillance cameras are working. Nor are there sufficient security guards to do thorough rounds at closing time.
Mahmoud warned the Khalil to get their act together last year when 9 paintings were stolen from the Mohammed Ali Museum in Cairo, which had similarly crappy security, but obviously that didn’t happen. (All 9 of those paintings were found dumped outside 10 days later.) The prosecutor isn’t playing this time. Mahmoud has barred 15 Egyptian officials, including the director of the Khalil museum and the head of the fine arts department at the Ministry of Culture, from leaving the country until the investigation is complete.