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Masterpieces Seen As Vulnerable

May 17, 1999 GMT

AMSTERDAM, Netherlands (AP) _ It can happen so fast, not even an alert security guard can prevent it: A vandal tosses acid at a masterpiece or unsheathes a knife and carves the canvas into ribbons.

A weekend slashing attack at Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum of Modern Art, that severely damaged a Picasso valued at up to $7.5 million, stunned museum officials. The vandalism by an escaped mental patient also has curators conceding little can be done to protect artworks _ short of turning galleries into glass-cased fortresses.

``You can come in. You can look. And unfortunately, you can also whip out a knife and cut,″ a somber Rudi Fuchs, director of the Stedelijk Museum, said Monday.

Dutch police were questioning the accused slasher, who escaped from a psychiatric clinic in Utrecht, about 35 miles southeast of Amsterdam. He hopped a train to the capital, bought a ticket to the Stedelijk and allegedly used a razor knife to cut a huge, ragged hole in the middle of Picasso’s ``Woman Nude Before Garden,″ a 1956 oil on canvas.

Museum and city officials reacted with outrage to Sunday afternoon’s attack at the Stedelijk, which houses a world-renowned collection including five other Picassos. At the time of the attack, 2,500 visitors were passing through the gallery.

It was the third time in the past 18 months that a vandal has struck the museum with disastrous results.

In March, another man who described himself as schizophrenic and psychotic pleaded guilty to charges that he used a switchblade in 1997 to slash a work by American abstract impressionist Barnett Newman. Earlier in 1997, another vandal was sentenced to 10 months in prison for spraying a green dollar sign on a painting by Russian avant-garde artist Kazimir Malevich.

Restoration experts were able to repair those paintings, but Fuchs said he isn’t sure the prized Picasso he described as ``superb and marvelous″ will be salvageable. The museum, which bought the painting in 1981 for $950,000, is insured for the damage.

``Everyone is very shocked. I find it horrible what happened, and I can’t believe it has happened again,″ said Saskia Bruines, Amsterdam’s councilor for culture. ``We must step up security. We must ask ourselves what we could be doing that we haven’t already done.″

Dutch authorities said the 41-year-old mental patient, identified only as Paul G., was a suspect in a 1990 incident at Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum in which someone threw acid on ``The Night Watch,″ a masterpiece by Rembrandt. They did not elaborate on what might link him to that crime.

The man has been under the supervision of the psychiatric clinic since 1978, when he tried to hijack a KLM Royal Dutch Airlines jet from Amsterdam to Madrid using a toy gun. Passengers and crew members overpowered him and he was arrested and convicted on assault charges.

Amsterdam police spokesman Cees Rameau said that after slashing the Picasso, the man went to the headquarters of the daily De Telegraaf, where he boasted of his crime to a reporter and showed her his knife. The newspaper called police, who arrested the man in the lobby.

The work, which measures 51-by-64 inches, was painted in Cannes, France, in cool hues of blue and green. It depicts a naked woman reclining in a chair in front of an open window with a lush garden in the background. Picasso’s model was Jacqueline Roque, his newlywed wife at the time.

Fuchs said Monday he would meet with officials of the Dutch Culture Ministry and other museums on ways to tighten security, but said little could be done to prevent such acts.

``The public nature of the museum makes it very difficult to protect the artworks,″ he said. ``It’s a real dilemma.″