Egypt detains official over Van Gogh theft: agency

Mon Aug 23, 2010 11:07am EDT
 
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CAIRO (Reuters) - Egypt's general prosecutor ordered that the government's head of fine arts be detained for four days pending an investigation into the theft of a Van Gogh painting worth an estimated $55 million, state media said.

Mohsen Shaalan, first undersecretary at the Culture Ministry, and four other officials have been accused of "negligence and failing to carry out their employment duties", the state news agency MENA reported on Monday.

The painting, known as "Poppy Flower" according to a statement in Arabic, was stolen on Saturday from Cairo's Mahmoud Khalil Museum, home to one of the Middle East's finest collections of 19th- and 20th-century art.

An early investigation at the museum showed "flagrant shortcomings" in security, with only seven out of 43 security cameras functioning properly, the state daily al-Ahram reported.

Fine arts specialist Ezz el-Din Naguib, speaking on state television, said the painting was stolen previously, in the late 1970s, but was recovered 10 years later.

The general prosecutor blocked nine Culture Ministry officials from traveling as part of the investigation, Al-Ahram said. Government officials were not available for comment.

The museum houses works assembled by Mohammed Mahmoud Khalil, a politician who died in 1953, including paintings by Gauguin, Monet, Manet and Renoir, as well as the Dutch post-Impressionist master Van Gogh.

Hours after the painting disappeared, state media reported that airport security had caught a young Italian man carrying the artwork, and also detained his female companion, but later it said the search was continuing.

The Italian embassy denied reports that the two Italian tourists were involved, MENA reported. Embassy officials were not immediately available for further comment.

Airport sources said that about 100 Italians returning home were searched as part of stepped-up efforts to prevent the painting being smuggled out of Egypt.

(Reporting by Alexander Dziadosz and Marwa Awad; Editing by Mark Heinrich)