ZURICH, Switzerland &

Three armed men in ski masks stole four paintings by Cezanne, Degas, van Gogh and Monet worth $163.2 million from a Zurich museum in one of Europe's largest ever art heists, police said today.




The robbers, who were still at large, stole the paintings Sunday from the E.G. Buehrle Collection, one of Europe's finest private museums for Impressionist and post-Impressionist art, police said.




It was the largest art robbery in Switzerland's history and one of the biggest ever in Europe, said Marco Cortesi, spokesman for the Zurich police. He compared it to the theft in 2004 of Edvard Munch's "The Scream" and "Madonna" from the Munch Museum in Norway.




The three masked men wearing dark clothing entered the museum a half-hour before closing Sunday, police said. While one of the men used a pistol to force museum personnel to the floor, the two others went into the exhibition hall and collected the four paintings.




One of the men spoke German with a Slavic accent, police said. They loaded the paintings into a white vehicle parked in front of the museum.




Police, asking for witnesses to come forward, said it was possible that the paintings were partly sticking out of the van as the robbers made their getaway.




A reward of about $90,000 was offered for information leading to the recovery of the paintings &

Claude Monet's "Poppy field at Vetheuil," Edgar Degas' "Ludovic Lepic and his Daughter," Vincent van Gogh's "Blooming Chestnut Branches," and Paul Cezanne's "Boy in the Red Waistcoat."




The FBI estimates the market for stolen art at $6 billion annually, and Interpol has about 30,000 pieces of stolen art in its database. While only a fraction of the stolen art is ever found, the theft of iconic objects, especially by force, is rarer because of the intense police work that follows and because the works are so difficult to sell.




Lukas Gloor, the museum's director, said the robbers stole four of the collection's most important paintings. But, he said, they appeared to have taken the first four they came to, leaving even more valuable paintings hanging in the same room.




Associated Press writers Bradley S. Klapper and Alexander G. Higgins in Geneva contributed to this report.