Egypt to Improve Museum Security After Van Gogh Theft

Egypt plans to set up a security control room to monitor all museums after the theft of a $55 million Vincent van Gogh painting in Cairo, Zahi Hawass, head of the country’s antiquities agency said today.

Culture Minister Faruq Hosni also has formed a committee to review security measures after the theft at the Mohamed Mahmoud Khalil Museum, Hawass said in an e-mailed statement.

The committee “aims to review all current measures used to secure works of art, as well as what is needed” to improve security, said Hawass, secretary-general of the Supreme Council for Antiquities. The panel will work with the National Security Agency to train museum personnel, he said.

The Van Gogh work is one of 304 oil paintings and 50 sculptures in the three-story museum, which was built on the Nile in 1920 as the residence of Egyptian art collector Khalil. The most conservative estimate of the value of the collection is 7 billion Egyptian pounds ($1.2 billion), according to a government website. The museum features a number of pieces by European artists including Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Paul Gauguin and Claude Monet.

Egypt, which boasts some of the world’s most renowned antiquities, such as the golden mask of the Pharaoh Tutankhamun, is building and renovating 18 museums across the country, Hawass said. All the sites “will have state-of-the-art surveillance equipment,” he added.

Boosting Tourism

The developments are part of the government’s efforts to increase revenue from tourism, which generated $10.76 billion in income last year, according to the Tourism Ministry.

Egypt’s Public Prosecutor Abdel-Meguid Mahmoud has ordered the four-day detention of a Culture Ministry official and four museum employees as part of an investigation into the theft.

A Cairo judge has extended the detention of the five, who have been accused of negligence, for 15 days, the state-run Middle East News Agency reported today, without saying how it obtained the information.

Only seven out of 43 security cameras were functioning and none of the alarms attached to the museum’s paintings was working, the public prosecutor told reporters on Aug. 22 at the museum after the theft had been discovered.

The robbers climbed on a sofa and cut the picture, titled “Poppy Flowers” or “Vase of Flowers,” out of its frame, the state-run news agency reported, saying security agents at Egypt’s airports and borders had been put on alert.

The same Van Gogh painting was stolen in 1978 and was recovered two years later from an undisclosed location in Kuwait, the Associated Press reported.

Auction Records

Failing to achieve popularity as an artist in his lifetime, Van Gogh committed suicide in 1890 at the age of 37. His paintings have become among the world’s most valuable since his death. “Portrait of Dr. Gachet” sold at Christie’s International for $82.5 million in 1990, making it the most expensive artwork to sell at auction at the time. The previous record for a work at auction had been his “Irises,” which sold for $53.9 million.

Van Gogh’s paintings have been frequent targets of art thieves. “Blossoming Chestnut Branches” was one of four paintings stolen from a Zurich museum in February 2008.

Khalil was an Egyptian parliamentarian in the 1930s and 1940s. The mansion and the art collection were bequeathed to the state in his will, the government says. Khalil, who studied law at the Sorbonne University in France, died in Paris in 1953.

To contact the reporter on the story: Alaa Shahine in Cairo at asalha@bloomberg.net

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