- Associated Press - Sunday, August 22, 2010

CAIRO (AP) - None of the alarms and only seven out of 43 surveillance cameras were working at a Cairo museum where a Vincent van Gogh painting was stolen, Egypt’s top prosecutor said Sunday.

Thieves made off with the canvas, known by the titles of “Poppy Flowers” and “Vase with Flowers,” on Saturday from the Mahmoud Khalil Museum in the Egyptian capital.

Prosecutor general Abdel-Meguid Mahmoud told Egypt’s state news agency Sunday that the thieves used a box cutter to remove the painting from its frame. He blamed the heist on the museum’s lax security measures, calling them “for the most part feeble and superficial.”

The museum guards’ daily rounds at closing time were inadequate and did not meet minimum security requirements to protect internationally renowned works of art, he said.

Mahmoud added that his office had warned Egypt’s museums to implement stricter security controls after nine paintings were stolen last year from another Cairo institute, the Mohammed Ali Museum. Similar security lapses were to blame in that theft.

Fifteen Egyptian officials, including the director of the Khalil museum, Reem Bahir, and the head of the fine arts department at the Ministry of Culture, have been barred from leaving Egypt until the investigation into the painting’s theft is complete, Mahmoud said. He did not elaborate.

Bahir refused to comment on the prosecutor general’s statements, saying only that the investigation was still under way.

On Saturday, Egypt’s minister of culture, Farouk Hosni, said that police had confiscated the painting from an Italian couple at Cairo airport hours after it was stolen.

But Hosni later backtracked, saying his announcement was based on “false and incorrect” information. He said authorities were still searching for the missing painting, which he said is worth an estimated $50 million.

It was not clear what caused the confusion over the artwork’s fate.

This is the second time this painting by the Dutch-born postimpressionist has been stolen from the Khalil museum. Thieves first made off with the canvas in 1978, before authorities recovered it two years later at an undisclosed location in Kuwait. Officials have never fully revealed the details of that theft.

The 12-inch-by-12-inch (30-centimer-by-30-centimeter) canvas, believed to have been painted in 1887, resembles a flower scene by the French artist Adolphe Monticelli, whose work deeply affected van Gogh. The Monticelli painting also is part of the Khalil collection.