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Serbia finds stolen Cezanne worth $100 million

BELGRADE/ZURICH (Reuters) - Police in Serbia have recovered a painting by the French artist Paul Cezanne that was stolen at gunpoint from a Swiss museum four years ago, officials said on Thursday.

Cezanne's Boy in a Red Waistcoat, which media said was worth more than $100 million, was one of four paintings stolen from the E. G. Buehrle Collection in Zurich in 2008 by a trio of masked robbers who burst in just before closing time and told staff to lie on the floor while they took what they wanted.

The heist was one of the largest in the world at the time.

Four men were arrested in the capital Belgrade and the southwestern town of Cacak on Wednesday in connection with the theft and the director of the Buehrle collection confirmed the authenticity of the painting, the Zurich state prosecutor's office said.

At a press conference in Belgrade, Miljko Radisavljevic, the special prosecutor for organized crime, said the suspects wanted to sell the painting, found in the door panel of a car, for as little as 3.5 million euros ($4.62 million).

"They received 2.8 million euros before the arrest," he said.

Boy in a Red Waistcoat, thought to have been painted in 1888, depicts a boy in traditional Italian dress wearing a red waistcoat, a blue handkerchief and a blue belt. Three other versions of the painting are in museums in the United States.

Two of the stolen canvases, one by Claude Monet and the other by Vincent Van Gogh, were recovered not long after the robbery, abandoned in a car. A work by Edgar Degas is still missing.

At the same press conference, Serbian Interior Minister Ivica Dacic said during the action dubbed Operation Waistcoat, police also seized about 1.5 million euros in cash, four vehicles, weapons and ammunition.

"I don't think we have ever had a more valuable arrest," Dacic said. "The painting will now be guarded by police and returned to its owner."

The Buehrle collection, one of the most important 20th-century private holdings of European art, was amassed by the industrialist Emil Georg Buehrle, who derived his wealth from producing and selling anti-aircraft guns.

Last October, Serbian police recovered two paintings by Pablo Picasso - Tete de Cheval (Horse's Head) and Verre et Pichet (Glass and Pitcher) - stolen in 2008 from a gallery in the Swiss town of Pfaeffikon, near Zurich.

(Reporting By Aleksandar Vasovic; Additional reporting by Emma Thomasson and Catherine Bosley in Zurich; Editing by Myra MacDonald)

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