CAIRO: Investigations into the theft of a $50 million Van Gogh painting from a Cairo museum last week, continue to reveal more security flops.
Only one single security guard manned Mahmoud Khalil Museum which housed Van Gogh’s “Poppy Flowers” and most of the museum’s cameras have been out of order since 2006, revealed a report by the state-run Middle East News Agency (MENA).
The prosecution’s investigation found that the museum had reduced the number of security guards from 30 to 9 and "most days the number was reduced so that there was only one guard in the museum," MENA reported.
Only seven of 43 cameras were functioning and none of the alarms went off during the theft.
Deputy Culture Minister Mohsen Shaalan and four employees at the Mahmoud Khalil Museum remain detained under investigation on charges of “security negligence”.
Shaalan was responsible for the development and security of the museum, according to a 2006 decision issued by the ministry of culture, giving him all administrative and financial authorities over Mahmoud Khalil museum.
Shaalan denied accusations of negligence and pointed the finger at the Ministry of Culture, which he said was using him as a “scapegoat”.
Shaalan said in a Sunday interview with El Shororuk newspaper mediated by his lawyer Samir Sabri that “the authorization that was given to me, is given to all ministry officials to facilitate financial issues and it’s limited to LE 300,000 and is usually used in very limited cases.”
“LE 300,000 isn’t enough to develop and change a whole network of surveillance cameras and alarms, that requires LE 16 million,” he added.
In a telephone interception to Mehwar TV’s daily talk show “90 Minutes” Monday night, Sabri said that Culture Minister Farouk Hosni should be taken to court as the top official responsible for the security negligence that led to the Van Gogh theft.
“Mohsen Shaalan had sent several correspondences and notices to the Ministry of Culture since 2007, notifying them of the security problems in the [Mahmoud Khalil] museum, and informing them that the cameras and alarms don’t work, but the ministry ignored his requests,” he explained.
“He [Shaalan] even told the Minister of Culture personally about the security problems in the museum in a meeting between the two. But the minister’s response was that it was more important to replace the old drapes for the sake of foreign visitors,” Sabri added.
Hosni denied Shaalan’s accusations in an interview with UAE newspaper The National, on Wednesday.
“Nobody should imagine that I knew that the security cameras were not functioning, because had I known that I would have ordered the museum closed immediately,” he said.
Hosni accused the media of falsely attacking him and taking advantage of the incident to tarnish his good name and achievements as minister.
“It’s unbelievable the frenzy in the media — dreadful hunger for accusations. They are leaving or defending the defendant [Mr Shaalan] and running after the [innocent]. Why? Because I am a minister,” he said.
At the heels of the Van Gogh theft, Hosni formed a committee on Saturday to take an inventory of all the artwork preserved in museums throughout Egypt in a bid to save face and preserve what’s left of Egyptian treasures.
Ahmed Salah, press officer at the culture ministry, told told Daily News Egypt that the ministry of culture established a committee of prominent artists and experts on Saturday to assess the condition of all artwork in all Egyptian museums to determine whether or not they need restoration.
On Thursday, Hosni ordered shut the Mahmoud Saied, the Islamic Ceramics and the Ahmed Shawqi Museums based on the findings of a security committee established by the ministry to evaluate security in Egyptian museums, following the recent “scandal”.
“The scandal is not in the loss of the painting, but in how it was stolen,” Hosni said.
The painting was cut out from it’s a frame with a box cutter in broad day light. Some reports claim that the thieves pushed a couch under the painting and stood on it while they cut it out without anybody noticing.
Museum employees discovered the theft Saturday afternoon on Aug. 21 before closing time.
The investigation showed that the museum didn’t keep any records of its visitors and the metal detector wasn’t working.
The events surrounding the theft caused a huge scandal for the culture ministry and shed light on the poor state of museums in Egypt.
Egyptian tycoon Naguib Sawiris offered a LE 1 million ($175,300) reward for information leading to the recovery of the stolen painting, state television reported on Wednesday.
Sawiris, chairman of mobile operator Orascom Telecom, is the first businessman to publicly get involved in the search for the painting.
Mahmoud Khalil museum is home to valuable artwork, assembled by Mohammed Mahmoud Khalil, a politician who died in 1953. The collection includes paintings by Gauguin, Monet, Manet and Renoir, as well as the Dutch post-Impressionist master Van Gogh.
The empty frame of stolen Van Gogh painting "Poppy Flowers" at Cairo’s Mahmoud Khalil Museum. (AP)