BELGRADE, Serbia — Police from Serbia and Switzerland have recovered a Paul Cezanne masterpiece that was stolen from a Swiss museum in 2008 and captured four men as they were trying to sell it, officials said Thursday.
During a news conference in Belgrade, officials played a video showing how police had arrested one of the four suspects in a Belgrade suburb and found the painting in the roof upholstery of a black van, handcuffed the driver and dragged him away.
Clearly proud of the police raids on Wednesday and Thursday, officials displayed "The Boy in the Red Vest" by the French impressionist, with two masked Serbian special policemen armed with machine guns standing alongside of it.
A Swiss expert authenticated the oil on canvas painting, which was stolen from E. G. Buhrle Collection in Zurich along with three other masterpieces by Claude Monet, Vincent van Gogh and Edgar Degas. Zurich prosecutors also said that the museum certified that the painting is the original by Cezanne.
The work was worth 100 million Swiss francs ($110 million, (EURO)84 million) when it was stolen by three masked gunmen who witnesses said spoke German with a Slavic accent in what was one of the biggest art thefts in Europe at the time.
"I think this is really an impressive action conducted jointly with Swiss police," said Miljko Radisavljevic, Serbia's organized crime prosecutor.
He said four men, including the leader of the gang that conducted the robbery, were arrested in raids in Belgrade, the capital, and the central city of Cacak.
Soon after the robbery on Feb. 10, 2008, Monet's "Poppy field at Vetheuil" and van Gogh's "Blooming Chestnut Branches" were discovered undamaged in a car parked at a mental hospital in Zurich. About a year later, Degas' "Ludovic Lepic and his Daughter," worth about 10 million francs ($11 million, (EURO)8 million), was returned to the Swiss museum after a (EURO)400,000 reward was paid to and unidentified person, Serbian officials said.
Serbian Interior Minister Ivica Dacic said the police raids, planned since 2010, took place when the suspected robbers decided to take the Cezanne painting to a wealthy Serb who agreed to buy it for (EURO)3.5 million ($4.6 million). Dacic said that nearly (EURO)1.5 million ($2 million) in cash and firearms were found with the four arrested men.
"Of course, they could not sell the painting for its real price," Dacic said. "It's amazing standing besides this masterpiece."
He said one of the arrested men was the leader of the gang that conducted the robbery, while the three others are believed to be accomplices in the crime.
They will stand trial in Serbia, Dacic said.
Art experts have suggested the robbers took advantage of low security at the Swiss museum without knowing about the paintings or how difficult it can be to sell such well-known stolen art works.
The robbers took the first four paintings they reached when they raided the museum shortly before closing time on a Sunday. Although the most valuable painting was among the ones they took, they left behind the second most precious picture in the room, Cezanne's "Self Portrait with Palette," insured for 90 million francs ($98 million, (EURO)75 million.)