AMSTERDAM The operation began moments after the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam closed Sunday evening. Men removed alarm tags from behind some of Vincent Van Gogh's greatest masterpieces, including "Sunflowers," "Irises" and the famously crooked "Bedroom," and quickly pulled the paintings down from the museum's walls.
Fortunately, they were not thieves carrying out an epic heist, but curators preparing the works for transport to a temporary location across town where they will be on display for the next seven months while the museum is closed for renovations.
In all, 75 pieces the cream of the biggest collection of Vincent van Gogh's work are moving to The Hermitage, an Amsterdam dependency of the Russian state museum.
Watching the lifeblood of his museum disappear, Director Axel Ruger said he wasn't nervous about the possibility the paintings could be damaged or stolen before they return next year.
"We do this all the time" when individual paintings go on loan to another museum, he said. But never on this scale, he conceded.
"I cannot really say much about the (security) measures that are being taken, because you will understand that we need to keep those confidential in order to safeguard the security of the transport," he said.
Standing near a blank space on the wall where Van Gogh's final work, the 1890 painting "Wheatfield with Crows," had hung just minutes earlier, Curator Leo Jansen described in brief the treatment the paintings would undergo.
After being loaded onto felt-covered trolleys, they would be taken to a workshop to be wrapped in protective insulation and packed into hard-shell carrying cases called "turtles" that are resistant to both physical shocks and temperature changes.
The cases have been assigned code numbers rather than bearing the paintings' individual names.
About an hour later, the first shipment was loaded onto a yellow van and then driven away under police escort. The route each shipment followed was kept secret until the last moment.
The operation continued like clockwork through Sunday night and into the day Monday in order to get the paintings on display again as soon as possible: the Van Gogh Museum is Amsterdam's most popular, attracting 1.6 million visitors in 2011 eclipsing both the Rembrandt-rich Rijksmuseum and the Anne Frank House museum.
The exhibit at The Hermitage opens Saturday and runs through mid-April, with the Van Gogh Museum to reopen on April 25, 2013.
The closure of the Van Gogh Museum was timed in part to coincide with the reopening next door of the lesser-known Stedelijk, or city museum, which houses works by Dutch Modernists Piet Mondriaan and Gerrit Rietveld, as well as Pablo Picasso, Marcel Duchamp, Henri Matisse and many others.
Dubbed "the bathtub" by local press, the most notable new feature of the renovated Stedelijk is a white roof with an overhang that stretches so far from the side of the building it looks like it might simply break off.
Architects say it is structurally sound, made possible thanks to a stronger-than-steel composite material.