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Today in history… anguish as ‘The Scream’ is snatched

12:00am | & Lifestyle

One of the world’s best known paintings was stolen from a gallery in Oslo early on February 12th, 1994, with the thieves leaving a note which read: “Thanks for the poor security”.

The painting ­– Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” – had been moved from its usual and more secure location at the Norwegian capital’s National Art Museum to a more prominent position on a lower floor. It had been done as part of a Norwegian Culture Festival timed to coincide with the country hosting the Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, but the move had not gone unnoticed by opportunist thieves.

The Olympics were due to open later the same day and expected to bring more visitors to the museum. Instead it was inundated with police searching for clues to the audacious theft.

The whole thing had been caught on the museum’s CCTV system, but it took just 50 seconds from start to finish. The CCTV showed two men climbing a ladder placed on the museum’s outside wall, smashing through a window, cutting the painting from the wall with wire cutters then making their escape. They left the ladder and cutters behind, along with their cheeky ‘thank you’ note.

The break-in triggered the museum’s alarm system and a security guard immediately alerted the police, but it was all over so quickly that the thieves were long gone when police arrived at the scene a few minutes later. Officers were said to be looking for a Mercedes car thought to have been used in the getaway.

A red-faced director of the museum, Knut Berg, faced criticism over the poor security and admitted the Munch masterpiece was not insured. But he said it was so well known that “it would be impossible to sell”. Early speculation suggested the theft was staged as a publicity stunt, timed to coincide with the Winter Olympics when the eyes of the world were on Norway. A radical Norwegian anti-abortion group even claimed responsibility, but its claim was quickly discredited.

Munch actually produced four versions of “The Scream” between 1893 and 1910, both as paintings and pastels, but this was the earliest and best-known. Featuring a figure with an agonised expression against a backdrop of a tumultuous orange sky, it has become an icon of human anguish, with one renowned critic calling it “a Mona Lisa for our time”.

A month later the story moved on when the gallery received a credible $1m ransom demand for the return of the painting. The gallery’s board refused to pay, but the police stepped in and began planning an undercover sting to trap the thieves. The Norwegians enlisted the help of ‘SO10’, the covert operations branch of London’s Metropolitan Police, in planning and carrying out the sting.

Although details of the sting were never fully revealed, on May 7th 1994 the painting was recovered undamaged and in January 1996 four men were convicted and jailed in connection with the theft. One of them, Paal Enger, had been convicted of stealing another painting by Munch in 1988.

The men later appealed against their conviction and were released on a legal technicality when it emerged the British agents involved in the sting operation had entered Norway under false identities. Enger went on to become a legitimate art buyer and acquired his first Munch legally at an auction in 2001.

Meanwhile, Munch’s work has continued to attract the attention of thieves. In 2004 two of his paintings, including a different version of “The Scream”, were stolen by masked gunmen from The Munch Museum, also in Oslo. Both paintings were recovered two years later and, after some restoration, put back on display at the museum, which had closed for 10 months for a comprehensive overhaul of its security.

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