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French museum reels from repeat theft of Monet and Sisley works

Stolen again. Last time, it was a museum curator who staged a Hollywood-worthy theft of Impressionist paintings by Monet and Sisley before landing in a French prison. This time, the five masked gunmen who snatched the canvases are still at large.

As a handful of visitors milled about the Museum of Fine Arts in Nice on the French Riviera on Sunday, the five men dashed in and made off with four paintings worth about EUR 1 million (US$1.4 million), police said.

The stolen paintings were Monet's 1897 "Cliffs near Dieppe," fellow Impressionist Alfred Sisley's 1890 "Lane of Poplars near Moret," and Flemish master Pieter Bruegel's 17th century "Allegory of Earth" and "Allegory of Water," said the museum's deputy curator Patricia Grimaud.

The first two had vanished from the museum's walls before: In 1998, then-curator Jean Forneris staged a heist in which masked, armed men took him "hostage" and forced him to take them to the museum. The men overpowered guards and tied up the staff members before fleeing with the paintings - in the curator's car.

He soon confessed, and the paintings were found in a boat docked in Nice harbor. He was convicted and served 18 months in prison.

The museum put the pictures back up, and took no extra security measures after the incident, Grimaud said.

She said the cost of all four works was "inestimable." "These were remarkable works of art," she said by telephone, clearly agitated by the theft.

Culture Minister Christine Albanel expressed concern about the "intolerable" theft and hope that the canvases would be recovered unharmed.

Still, art experts said the thieves would have a hard time unloading the paintings.

"No legitimate dealer will buy these items because they are so well known," said Antonia Kimbell of the Art Loss Register, which maintains the world's largest database on stolen, missing and looted art.

The Sisley is on its third theft, she said - it was also stolen in 1978 while it was on loan at an exhibit in Marseille.

Monets are among the most commonly stolen works, she said, with 53 in the Art Loss Register's lists.

The FBI estimates the market for stolen art at US$6 billion (EUR 4.7 billion) annually. The Art Loss Register has tallied up 170,000 pieces of stolen, missing and looted art and valuables.

Kimbell noted that public museums "are always going to be a target because they are publicly open." Still, she added, "Museums have to work harder at security."

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