Flimsy Security for Art Treasures

It was almost too easy. Thieves, who broke into one of Latin America's most prestigious art museums and stole a Picasso worth $50 million. were barely hampered by a lax security system protecting an art collection that's prized at over $1billion.

Officials of the São Paulo Museum of Art — also known as MASP — today confessed that there were no alarm systems in place, and no infrared sensors in the cameras to help them identify the criminals who stole two masterpieces, including the Picasso. A red-faced spokesman for MASP also admitted that none of the museum's 8,000 works were insured, including the two that were stolen.

This latest admission contradicts earlier police reports, which stated that the museum's alarm system failed to go off and alert the police of the crime.

On Thursday, around 5 a.m., three brazen thieves forced open MASP's main entrance by simply using a hydraulic jack and a crowbar. In just three minutes, they stole two of the museum's most important works — Picasso's portrait of Suzanne Bloch, and Portinari's "The Coffee Worker," valued at a total of $55.5 million.

Apparently, the cash-strapped institution could not afford an effective security system, relying only on watch guards and cameras to keep an eye on the valuable collection.

The president of the museum, Julio Neves, said they would look into getting a more robust security structure.

On Friday, reports surfaced that police were informed of an earlier attempted break-in just three days before the theft.

Last Monday, thieves tried to force their way into the museum by using a blow torch. The incident was not officially reported at the time, and local police were only told of it after Thursday's theft. Another attempt to break into the museum had occurred in October this year, but the prowlers fled after being spotted.

MASP is not unique in this criminal phenomenon. In 2004, armed robbers managed to steal Edvard Munch's iconic work of art, "The Scream," from the Munch Museum in Norway, in broad daylight. The painting was later recovered and three men were jailed for their roles in the heist.

Last year, a gang of criminals broke into the Chacara do Ceu museum of art in Rio de Janeiro, and stole several works of art by Picasso, Dali and Monet during the carnival festivities, disappearing with the works into a crowd of revelers. Later, one of the missing pieces of art was found on a Russian Internet auction site, leading police to believe that an international criminal circle was behind the theft.

Brazil's culture minister, Gilberto Gil, reportedly said that an international gang is most likely to be at the root of the crime. Neither police nor museum officials confirm the speculation.

"Every museum has this problem," museum spokesman Paulo Alves told ABC News. "But this is the first time in MASP's 60-year history that such a theft has occurred."

Alves said the museum was not in a financial position to invest in a sophisticated security system. The museum's finances are a perennial problem. In 2005, the museum had to close temporarily when its power was cut off for non-payment of electric bills.

"The security system is not going to change until we get more funding. MASP does not have the resources to resolve this problem yet," Alves said.

Art dealer Alfonso Henrique Costa sees this as a gloomy indication of how little is invested in protecting Brazil's artistic heritage.

"MASP undoubtedly has the best art collection in South America," Costa told ABC News. "But there is no security. Many of the country's museums are in state of disrepair. Months go by when some museums cannot even pay their running costs, or their staff, so how are they supposed to afford insurance for their collections?"

Interpol has since alerted 168 countries of the missing works. The international police agency has a database of some 31.5 million paintings, sculptures and objets d'art that have been stolen.

Meanwhile, Costa mourns another loss of Brazil's rich cultural heritage:

"It's very sad to see this. In Brazil, these works of art are rare, there is not enough money to buy paintings of such high value. It's an enormous cultural loss for the country," he said.