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For Munch, a bunch of security

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Nearly one year after an unprecedented art heist at gunpoint, the good news for visitors to Norway is that Oslo's popular Munch Museum has reopened after being closed for 10 months. The bad news: The iconic Edvard Munch oil painting The Scream is still missing.

The good news: Norwegian authorities have suspects in custody in connection with the theft on Aug. 22, 2004. The bad news: There are growing fears that The Scream and Munch's Madonna, also stolen, have been destroyed.

The good news: The museum, which was excoriated for poor security at the time of the theft, now claims to have the tightest in the world. The bad news: Its new airport-style security gives off the paranoid vibes of ... well, an airport, at least according to some critics.

There were even airport-style lines for the reopening ceremonies in June. It was taking so long for the 600 guests to get through the metal detectors at the door that officials eventually gave up and ushered them all through, reporters said.

The Munch Museum contains tens of thousands of works by the Expressionist painter, including a pastel version of The Scream, one of the world's most famous images. Painted around 1893, the picture of a man open-mouthed in a silent scream has come to represent human anxiety in an anxious age (although that wasn't the artist's intent).

The two stolen paintings are thought to be worth close to $90 million, although practically speaking, they're priceless.

After the theft, the museum closed and spent about $6 million to upgrade security. Besides metal detectors, measures include a control room for surveillance of the galleries, automatic gates to lock them in, and bulletproof glass to protect paintings that are bolted to the wall.

"It's been dubbed Fortress Munch" by the Norwegian press, says Edward Dolnick, an American and author of The Rescue Artist, the true story of the 1994 theft of another version of The Scream (there were four) from another Oslo museum. The book focuses on Charley Hill, the Anglo-American art-theft detective who helped recover it and catch the bumbling thieves.

Dolnick says many in the museum world are quietly dismayed by what the Munch Museum has done, especially because beefed-up security might not have stopped the thuggish 2004 thieves. Two masked men entered the museum on a Sunday morning; one held a gun to the head of a museum guard and ordered visitors to the floor while the other grabbed the paintings from the wall. Then they ran out, joining a third man in a stolen car and ripping the wooden frames off the paintings to remove electronic tracking devices.

The Scream, which is painted on fragile cardboard, is believed to have been dropped and damaged in the process.

"If they come in with guns, there's not much you can do about it -- no one wants a shootout," Dolnick says, adding that the case marks an escalation in violence in art thefts. "You don't often see guns, but the trend lately has been more dangerous crooks are getting involved" in the multibillion-dollar worldwide trade in stolen art.

The worry, he says, is that American museums, fearful of being victimized like the Munch Museum, might be tempted to amp up security in similar fashion, hindering the public's close access to works of art.

"They've got multimillion-dollar bills hanging on their walls and open doors. It's asking for trouble," Dolnick says. "On the other hand, it's their mission to show paintings. How do they balance that?"

Meanwhile, the theory now is that the Munch heist could have been a diversion to distract police while an armed gang robbed several Norwegian banks in the weeks after the theft. Five people are in custody for the Munch theft, but there has been no word on the whereabouts of the paintings, despite a $310,000 reward. A Norwegian newspaper, Verdens Gang, recently cited criminal sources who said both paintings were destroyed because the thieves feared that police were closing in.

Dolnick says he's dubious about these theories. Based on his own sources in Norway and his conversations with Hill, the detective-hero at the center of his book, he says there's "reason to hope" that the paintings are still intact. It's still possible the thieves have them stashed somewhere. After all, he says, masterpieces keep their value forever.

As for art lovers, they can still see The Scream: Besides the pastel version in the Munch Museum, the National Gallery of Norway, also in Oslo, has its version back (thanks to Hill), but not in the same special room from which it was so easily stolen in 1994. It might take a while to find it -- but the same goes for thieves.

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© Copyright 2004 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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