09/06/2004 at 01:00 AM EDT
Christina Vassiliou loved artist Edvard Munch's iconic The Scream so much that the New Jersey native and her mom, Mary, went all the way to the artist's native Norway to see it. But their Aug. 22 viewing of the Expressionist work at Oslo's Munch Museum didn't go as expected. "We turned and saw a hooded man with black clothes and black gloves trying to tear down the picture," Mary said later. "I thought it was a crazy man who was trying to destroy the picture."
The reality was far worse. With help from his masked and armed partner, the thief made off with both The Scream and Madonna (another famous Munch work). The duo escaped in a stolen car driven by a third man. The brazen Sunday morning heist left police stunned—and almost clueless. "Nobody has been arrested," a Norwegian police spokesman told PEOPLE. "We've gotten lots of tips."
The stolen Scream is one of four versions painted by Munch, who died in 1944 at 80. In 1994, another version was taken from Oslo's National Gallery and recovered in a sting operation three months later after authorities received a $1 million ransom demand. Police anticipate a similar ransom request, but at press time had received none. (With both paintings estimated at $100 million, experts say they could never be sold on the open market.) For now, art lovers are left with a loss beyond appraisal. "In the life of a museum, such damage is a tragedy," said museum director Gunnar Sørensen. "They are artworks that belong to the whole of mankind."