OSLO -- Armed, masked thieves burst into a lightly guarded Oslo museum yesterday and snatched the Edvard Munch masterpiece "The Scream" and a second Munch painting from the walls as stunned visitors watched.
It was the second time in a decade that a version of the iconic "Scream," which depicts an anguished, open-mouthed figure grabbing the sides of its head, had been stolen from an Oslo museum.
The thieves, who fled by car, also took "Madonna," another painting that with "Scream" is part of Munch's "Frieze of Life" series made in 1893-94, depicting themes of sickness, death, anxiety, and love.
The thieves, wearing black masks, threatened an employee of the Munch Museum with a handgun before grabbing the paintings, easily snapping the wires that attached them to the wall, according to witnesses and police.
Many museum visitors panicked and thought they were being attacked by terrorists.
"He was wearing a black face mask and something that looked like a gun to force a female security guard down on the floor," a witness, Marketa Cajova, told the NTB news agency.
Francois Castang, a French radio producer who saw the theft, told France Inter radio: "What's strange is that in this museum, there weren't any means of protection for the paintings -- no alarm bell."
"The paintings were simply attached by wire to the walls. All you had to do is pull on the painting hard for the cord to break loose, which is what I saw one of the thieves doing."
A photo taken by a witness outside the museum seems to show three black-clad robbers, two of whom are walking to a small, black car with the paintings in hand. The third robber seems to be opening the trunk. The witness who took the photo did not want to be identified.
Police spokeswoman Hilde Walsoe said that no one was injured during the robbery and that police had found the escape car, an Audi A6, and fragments of the paintings' frames.
Munch, a Norwegian painter and graphic artist who worked in Germany as well as his home country, developed an emotionally charged style of great significance to the birth of the 20th-century expressionist movement. He died in 1944 at age 81.
The stolen "Madonna" depicts an eroticized virgin with a blood-red halo. Munch later produced woodcut lithographs of a similar subject.
Munch made four versions of "The Scream," an image that has fascinated art authorities and the general public for decades. Art historians and amateurs have pondered the meaning of the enigmatic, seemingly bleak image, which has found fame in the popular culture in serious reproductions but also cartoons and novelty items.
The Munch Museum had two of the "Scream" pictures, a private collector owns a third version, and the fourth is on display at Oslo's National Gallery. That version was stolen in February 1994 but recovered three months later.
"They were all painted by Munch, and they are all just as valuable," Munch Museum spokeswoman Jorunn Christoffersen said. "Still, these paintings are not possible to sell, and it is impossible to put a price tag on them."
Knut Forsberg, manager of Blomqvist Fine Arts, Norway's oldest auction house since 1870, estimated the value of "The Scream" at from $59.6 million to $74.5 million. But he agreed it would be impossible to sell either painting on the open market because of their notoriety. "Most likely, the thieves will demand a ransom to deliver the paintings back," he said.
Forsberg refused to censure the museum over security.
"You could fasten the picture better, but then the thieves would just cut the picture from the frame and damage the painting," he said.