The mystery of the broad-daylight theft of a precious Van Gogh painting has taken a surreal and slightly silly twist.
The painting, entitled Poppy Flowers and worth an estimated US$50 million, was cut out of its frame Saturday by unknown thieves. But Egyptians awoke Sunday morning to find front page stories in both the state and independent press that the painting had been quickly recovered.
The articles, quoting senior Ministry of Culture officials, stated that an Italian man and woman were apprehended Saturday night attempting to fly to Italy with the stolen still-life. There was only one problem: the arrests never happened and the painting was still missing.
Culture Minister Farouk Hosni was forced to retract his original announcement of the arrests, blaming it on inaccurate information passed along to him by his underlings. It was an embarrassing turnaround that only compounds the original scandal.
As the hunt for the stolen painting continues, the spotlight returns to what appears to be lax and shoddy security standards at the Mohamed Mahmoud Khalil Museum, a slightly out-of-the-way venue on the Giza corniche that quietly houses an impressive collection of European art, including originals by Monet, Renoir, and Degas.
The museum is the former palace of Mohamed Mahmoud Khalil, a former Egyptian parliamentarian and passionate Francophile, who amassed the art collection. After Khalil’s death in Paris in 1953, his widow bequeathed the mansion and its contents to the Egyptian government for use as a museum.
But based on the immediate aftermath of the Van Gogh theft, it might become a topic of debate whether the museum and its staff are qualified to protect the artistic treasures it contains.
Public Prosecutor Abdel-Meguid Mohammed toured the museum grounds Sunday and issued a harsh assessment of the security set-up, calling it “a facade.” Only seven of the 43 security cameras were operational, “and even those seven were not functioning perfectly,” Mohammed told reporters. “Each painting in the museum has an alarm. Not a single alarm for any painting is working.”
Bloomberg News reported that the museum’s troubles just keep piling up. During Mohammed’s Sunday tour of the museum grounds, a crowd of photographers and cameramen accidentally knocked over a statue of cupid in the courtyard. The statue shattered as museum employees looked on in horror, Bloomberg reported.
Poppy Flowers was previously stolen in 1978, and later found mysteriously, arousing suspicions that the returned drawing was a forgery.