Oslo, Norway Art lovers had feared the worst. Brazen thieves had made off with the Edvard Munch masterpieces "The Scream" and "Madonna," and there was speculation that the gang burned the paintings to escape the police search.
On Thursday, police relieved those worries by recovering the national artistic treasures - just more than two years after masked gunmen grabbed the paintings in front of stunned visitors at an Oslo museum and disappeared.
"I saw the paintings myself today, and there was far from the damage that could have been feared," said Iver Stensrud, the police inspector who headed the investigation since the paintings were taken during an Aug. 22, 2004, raid on the Munch Museum.
Experts from the museum confirmed that the paintings, still shielded from the public and the media, were the real thing.
"I am almost crying from happiness," said Gro Balas, chairwoman of the Munch Museum board.
Many people initially thought the paintings might be offered for ransom. Art experts said it would be nearly impossible to sell such famous pieces of art, although some people speculated an immensely rich, unscrupulous art lover might be a willing buyer.
Then at a trial this year for three men charged with minor roles in the heist, prosecutors suggested the robbery was staged to distract police from the hunt for a gang behind a commando-style bank robbery four months earlier that killed a police officer and netted $9 million.
Norwegian media reported recently that the convicted mastermind in the bank heist, David Toska, had made a deal for milder terms in a 21-year prison sentence in exchange for the return of the paintings. Police declined comment.
Stensrud, the police inspector, said authorities thought the paintings had been in Norway the whole time.