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The Scream by Edvard Munch

The Scream by Edvard Munch, a version of which was recovered in an undercover sting operation in 1994. Photograph: AP

Scotland Yard detectives played a key role in the undercover sting operation which recovered the stolen Norwegian painting, The Scream, it was revealed yesterday.

Norwegian police found Edvard Munch‘s masterpiece virtually undamaged at a hotel in south Norway on Saturday. Three Norwegians were later arrested.

According to the daily newspaper Dagenbladet, two Metropolitan Police officers fooled the thieves by pretending they would buy the painting for £250,000.

Norwegian police had contacted London shortly after the theft and the Norwegians worked closely with Chief Inspector John Butler, head of Scotland Yard’s Arts and Antiques squad.

“While John Butler worked with [Norwegian police inspector] Leif Lier…two of Butler’s agents had already been in touch with people who claimed they could get hold of The Scream,” the paper said.

Scotland Yard issued a brief statement confirming it had co-operated but left the Norwegians to release any further details. Knut Berg, director of the National Gallery in Oslo, said the painting had a microscopic pinprick but he described the work as undamaged.

“The thieves must have handled it with extreme caution,” he said. “It was wonderful to see the painting again and we hope to have it back on the wall on Wednesday,” Mr Berg said.

Two men, filmed by video, carried out the theft on February 12, on the day of the opening of the Winter Olympics at Lillehammer. They smashed a window, grabbed the painting and disappeared in less than a minute.

“I am extremely happy and relieved that one of our greatest and most well-known art treasures has been recovered. This has been an eye-opener,” said minister of culture, Aase Kleveland.

The painting, which art experts say would be impossible for thieves to sell on the open market, was found in Aasgaarstrand, a beach resort where Munch had a cottage and where he painted some of his most famous works.

British police are in the forefront of tracking down Europe’s stolen art, partly because an estimated 60% of it ends up in London.

[A pastel version of The Scream sold for a record $119.9m (£74m) at an auction in New York on 3 May.]

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