The theft of a £3m painting by Paul Cézanne in Oxford on millennium night was carried out by a professional burglar who created a smokescreen to foil security cameras, it was disclosed yesterday.
With the noise of his break-in masked by celebratory fireworks, the burglar cut a hole in the roof of the Ashmolean museum and descended to its art gallery by rope ladder.
He had a holdall containing a scalpel, tape, gloves, a smoke canister and a small fan. He set off the canister, and used the fan to spread the smoke and obscure the view of the gallery's closed circuit cameras. In less than 10 minutes, he had seized the painting, View of Auvers-sur-Oise, climbed up the ladder, and gone. Behind him he left the holdall, gloves, scalpel and tape.
Yesterday a Thames Valley police spokesman refused to discuss the method behind the biggest of a series of recent thefts and attempted thefts from the 317-year-old Ashmolean. But a police source said: `It was a very clever ploy, a very professional theft. The burglar only entered the room where the Cézanne was hanging, and that appeared to be his only target. `He obviously knew exactly what he was doing. He used the smoke device to prevent any security cameras or patrolling guards from seeing his face.'
The smoke caused a university porter to call the fire brigade. When the firefighters arrived and realised there was no blaze, they found the remains of the smoke canister. It was only then that the police realised there had been a break-in and that an alarm was flashing near where the painting should have been.
Specialists in art theft had been called in by Thames Valley police, a spokesman said. `This is not a crime which is going to be solved overnight. We are more used to run-of-the-mill crimes. We need expertise.'
Customs and immigration staff at sea and air ports have been warned in case an attempt is made to smuggle the Cézanne abroad.
Superintendent John Carr of Oxford police, who heads the investigation, said: 'Whoever has taken this painting has given some thought to how to steal it. The person has some reason for it, and some outlet for it. One possibility is it has been stolen to order.'
The Ashmolean's director, Christopher Brown, said security at the museum had been the same on Friday as on any night of the year.
Dr Brown described the painting as an important early transitional picture from the very early work to the mature Cézanne, showing a small town near Versailles in which the artist lived for a short time.
'It is the only Cézanne we have in the Ashmolean, and it is very important as an example of late 19th-century painting. This is not just a criminal act but a very selfish act. 'The pattern in previous similar thefts is that pictures have been retrieved.'
View of Auvers-sur-Oise was painted between 1879 and 1882 and is subtitled The Fence to distinguish it from other studies by Cézanne and by other artists - including Van Gogh, who painted his Portrait of Dr Gachet there; this latter holds the world's auction-price record but has also been stolen.
Is Ceznne really worth it? Read our feature.