AMSTERDAM, Netherlands -- In one of the largest but briefest art thefts on record, gunmen took 20 major paintings from the Vincent van Gogh National Museum here before dawn yesterday but inexplicably abandoned them in their getaway car 35 minutes later at a nearby railroad station.
The paintings, all by the Dutch genius who died a suicide in France 101 years ago, had been carefully selected from the walls of the building devoted to his work in Amsterdam's museum complex.
The booty included one of his earliest finished paintings, the final version of "The Potato Eaters" completed in 1885, and one of his last, the nightmarish "Wheatfield With Crows" completed in July 1890, the month of his suicide.
Museum authorities declined to put a value on yesterday's haul but a police spokesman said the stolen artworks were worth "hundreds of millions" of dollars. The paintings were not covered by insurance because of increased premiums impelled by a rash of thefts in recent years, the museum said.
Ronald de Leeuw, the director of the museum, said that three of the recovered paintings had been severely torn when they were stuffed into the garment bags the thieves used to carry away the works.
They were the "Wheatfield With Crows," "Still Life With Bible," a dark work also done in 1885; and "Still Life With Fruit," with a painted frame, done in Paris in 1887.
Authorities at the museum said that works with more serious damage had been successfully restored in the past.
The thieves appeared in the museum about 3 a.m. local time, apparently having concealed themselves when it closed on Saturday.
Brandishing pistols, they forced the guards to turn off the infrared-sensing alarm system, which can detect movement in a room, as well as other protective systems.
The guards said the two men spoke in American-accented English. Most people in Amsterdam use English as a second language and are aware of its subtleties.
The guards said the thieves spent 45 minutes selecting the paintings they took.
The museum, formed around the collection of Vincent's brother Theo, has about 200 paintings, 500 drawings and 600 letters by van Gogh. The thieves made their selection mostly from among van Gogh's more valuable later works.
Among those stuffed in the garment bags were a self-portrait, a view of his room in the asylum in St. Remy, and versions of his sunflower and irises still lifes.
The thieves escaped with the two expandable garment bags in a Volkswagen Passat. One minute afterward, at 4:48 a.m., the guards gave the alarm to the police.
The car, with the paintings still in the garment bags in the back, was found at 5:23 a.m. at a train station within the Amsterdam city limits.