Three men posing as an art teacher and two students stole about US$2 million (HK$15.5 million) worth of paintings by some of South Africa's most celebrated artists off the walls of the Pretoria Art Museum in a brazen day-time robbery.
The three paid an entrance fee of just over US$1 each on Sunday and asked museum staff to direct them to the six works of art, which happened to be among the most valuable paintings on display.
Workers at the museum in South Africa's capital said it seemed as if they had a shopping list. They then produced weapons, tied up a museum worker and took the works out of the building, a city spokesman said yesterday.
"They knew exactly what they wanted and they were almost certainly commissioned to steal these paintings," said Pieter de Necker, a city spokesman.
The robbers favoured oil paintings, grabbing a 1931 painting by South African artist Irma Stern of brightly coloured sailboats waiting against a pier, de Necker said.
Other works stolen included a gouache drawing of an eland and bird by South African landscape artist J.H. Pierneef; a pastel-toned street scene by Gerard Sekoto, and a picture of a cat near a vase of petunias by Maggie Laubser.
The robbers, though apparently having done their homework, left behind an oil painting of two musicians by Stern because they could not fit it into their getaway car, a silver sedan, de Necker said.
The thieves left as the museum's private security guards drew close to them, he said.
The museum closed for the week yesterday and removed its remaining most valuable possessions for safekeeping, the spokesman said.
Authorities say they now plan to increase security to prevent further thefts, but the museum's surveillance cameras had stopped working on Thursday, de Necker said.
South African authorities had been alerted in case the thieves tried to take the works outside of the country, said Lieutenant Colonel Katlego Mogale, a spokeswoman for the South African Police Service.
Violent crime and murders are common in South Africa, but high-profile art thefts are rare.
In February last year, thieves stole four small, limited-edition prints by South African artist William Kentridge from a gallery in Johannesburg. Bronze statues in other South African museums have also been targeted, with authorities believing they are actually simply sold for their scrap metal value.
Associated Press, Reuters