SAO PAULO, Brazil – Armed with nothing more than a crow bar and a car jack, it took thieves just three minutes to steal paintings by Pablo Picasso and Candido Portinari, worth millions of dollars, from Brazil’s premier modern art museum. Authorities said they hit the Sao Paulo Museum of Art just before dawn Thursday — a time when the city’s busiest avenue is deserted and the guards inside were going through their shift change. Jumping over a glass partition, they climbed an open concrete staircase leading up into the entrance of the two-story modernist building, which hovers over a large plaza on stilts of steel. For a short time, they could have been seen from blocks away. But the thieves worked quickly. A few jabs of the crowbar, and they were able to slip a common car jack under the metal security gate. A few more cranks and they squeezed inside. Hazy images from a security camera shows three men going in at 5:09 a.m. They smashed through two glass doors, ran to the museum’s top floor and grabbed the two framed paintings from different rooms, somehow avoiding nearby guards. The alarm never rang, and by 5:12 a.m., they were making their escape. “It was a professional job; it was something they studied because the paintings were in different rooms,” said the lead police investigator, Marcos Gomes de Moura. Picasso painted “Portrait of Suzanne Bloch,” in 1904 during his Blue Period. It is among the most valuable pieces in the collection, museum spokesman Eduardo Cosomano said. They also took “O Lavrador de Cafe” by Portinari, a major Brazilian artist. “The prices paid for such works would be incalculable, enough to give you vertigo,” said curator Miriam Alzuri of the Bellas Artes Museum of Bilbao, Spain. Jones Bergamin, a Sao Paulo gallery director, estimated the Picasso at about $50 million and the Portinari $5-$6 million. “I talked to friends at Christie’s and Sotheby’s and made the estimate based on the last Picasso that sold, “Garcon Avec Pipe,” which is from the same blue period,” Bergamin said. But Bergamin disagrees with the police theory that the thieves are professionals, since they ran past many other valuable paintings, including a very important Renoir, a Raphael, and paintings by Rembrandt and Degas. “I think they took the Picasso because it was so small and the Portinari because it was hanging by the door,” he said. The Picasso measures 26 by 21 inches and the Portinari 40 by 32 inches, the museum said. Police believe there a fourth person may have acted as a lookout because they found headphones near the museum’s entrance. Thieves attempted a robbery at the same museum in late October but were foiled by the alarm system. This time, the alarm failed. Moura said he believes Thursday’s robbery was carried out by the same gang. Police were interviewing 30 museum employees, but none of the guards had fewer than 10 years on the job, Moura said. They also alerted Interpol and airport police to try to stop the paintings from leaving Brazil. And while Moura doubts the paintings are being held for ransom, police are ruling nothing out. “Everything indicates they were sent to do it by some wealthy art lover for his own collection — someone who, although wealthy, was not rich enough to buy the paintings,” Moura said. “O Lavrador de Cafe,” which depicts a coffee picker, was painted in 1939 and is one of the most renowned works by one of Brazil’s most famous painters. Portinari (1903-1962) was an influential practitioner of the “neo-realism” style. His best known works outside Brazil are the “Guerra e Paz” or “War and Peace” panels at the United Nations in New York. The museum said this was the first robbery in its 60-year history, but art thieves also hit Brazil last year, when a gang of five men used a carnival street parade to cover the theft of four paintings by Dali, Picasso, Monet and Cezanne from a Rio de Janeiro art museum. Those works, valued at around $40 million have never been recovered. With the museum closed Thursday as police searched for clues, a handful of visitors were frustrated and perplexed. “Who could imagine that someone could enter a museum and walk out with two paintings? It’s inconceivable,” said Deborah Regina Fernandes, a 37-year-old housewife who came with family and friends.
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