Top culture ministry official detained and accused of neglect in Van Gogh painting theft

Monday, August 23, 2010

Egypt deputy minister detained over van Gogh theft

CAIRO — Egypt’s top prosecutor on Monday ordered the detention of the deputy culture minister for four days in connection with the theft of a Vincent van Gogh painting, state media reported.

Thieves made off with the canvas, known by the titles of “Poppy Flowers” and “Vase with Flowers,” on Saturday from the Mahmoud Khalil Museum in Cairo. None of the museum’s alarms and only seven of 43 surveillance cameras were working at the time of the robbery.

The prosecutor general ordered the detention of Deputy Culture Minister Mohsen Shalaan and four of the museum’s security guards while they are investigated on suspicion of neglect and professional delinquency, according to the state-run Middle East News Agency.

No charges have been filed.

The prosecutor, Abdel-Meguid Mahmoud, implicated the deputy minister in the security lapses that he said led to the theft because he has an office in the museum and is in charge of its financial and administrative affairs.

Shalaan “neglected his duties and didn’t improve lax security measures by replacing the broken cameras and alarms,” MENA quoted the prosecutor as saying.

The guards were accused of neglect for not checking museum visitors.

Ten other people were questioned and released Sunday but remain under investigation on similar accusations.

The van Gogh painting is worth an estimated $50 million.

This is the second time the painting by the Dutch postimpressionist has been stolen from the museum. Thieves first made off with the canvas in 1978. Authorities recovered it two years later at an undisclosed location in Kuwait.

The 12-inch-by-12-inch (30-centimer-by-30-centimeter) canvas, believed to have been painted in 1887, resembles a flower scene by the French artist Adolphe Monticelli, whose work deeply affected van Gogh. The Monticelli painting also is part of the Khalil collection.

The prosecutor said his office had warned Egypt’s museums last year to implement stricter security controls after nine paintings were stolen from another Cairo institute, the Mohammed Ali Museum. Similar security lapses were to blame in that theft.

Shalaan, the deputy minister, said he also warned in 2007 that cameras and alarms at the Mahmoud Khalil Museum were not working but that Culture Minister Farouk Hosni did not come through with resources to replace the equipment.

“I am not going to be a scapegoat for the minister,” he was quoted as saying by the weekly Al-Youm Al-Sabaa newspaper.

He said he would present evidence that the minister was aware of the failing security at the museum, according to the paper’s online edition.

Hosni has instructed ministry officials to set up what he described as a central control room to monitor video from surveillance cameras in all Egyptian museums and link alarms into a single network, MENA reported.

The control room will be set up inside Cairo’s historic Citadel, the fortress built by Saladin. Committees will also tour museums across the country to review security measures.

will not be displayed