Police recover stolen Cézanne masterpiece in Serbia, arrest 4 men

A Serbian police officer guards a suspected art robber in Belgrade. A masterpiece by French impressionist Paul Cezanne, “The Boy in the Red Vest,” which was stolen from a private Swiss museum in 2008 in one of the biggest art thefts in Europe, was discovered in Serbia. Serbian police said three people were arrested in connection with the robbery. Enlarge photo

Serbian Interior Ministry/Associated Press

A Serbian police officer guards a suspected art robber in Belgrade. A masterpiece by French impressionist Paul Cezanne, “The Boy in the Red Vest,” which was stolen from a private Swiss museum in 2008 in one of the biggest art thefts in Europe, was discovered in Serbia. Serbian police said three people were arrested in connection with the robbery.

BELGRADE, Serbia — Police from Serbia and Switzerland have recovered a Paul Cézanne 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 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 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 it.

A Swiss expert authenticated the oil on canvas painting, which was stolen from the E.G. Buhrle Collection in Zurich along with three other masterpieces by Claude Monét, Vincent van Gogh and Edgar Degas. Zurich prosecutors also said the museum certified that the painting is the original by Cézanne.

The work was worth 100 million Swiss francs ($110 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, Monét’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), was returned to the Swiss museum after a 400,000 euros reward was paid to an 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 Cézanne painting to a wealthy Serb who agreed to buy it for 3.5 million euros ($4.6 million). Dacic said that nearly 1.5 million euros ($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 beside 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 artworks.

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, Cézanne’s “Self Portrait with Palette,” insured for 90 million francs ($98 million).

A Serbian forensic officer searches a vehicle for a masterpiece by French impressionist Paul Cezanne, “The Boy in the Red Vest” in Belgrade. Enlarge photo

Serbian Interior Ministry/Associated Press

A Serbian forensic officer searches a vehicle for a masterpiece by French impressionist Paul Cezanne, “The Boy in the Red Vest” in Belgrade.

A member of Serbian police guards the recovered “The Boy in the Red Vest” painting by French impressionist Paul Cézanne in Belgrade, Serbia. Serbian police arrested four people in connection with the robbery of the artwork. Enlarge photo

Darko Vojinovic/Associated Press

A member of Serbian police guards the recovered “The Boy in the Red Vest” painting by French impressionist Paul Cézanne in Belgrade, Serbia. Serbian police arrested four people in connection with the robbery of the artwork.