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Kids Asked About Damaged Paintings

January 23, 1998

ROME (AP) _ Police trying to find out who vandalized three Matisse paintings at a Rome museum questioned several schoolchildren on Friday.

Police believe the students were among two groups of schoolchildren, one from an elementary school and the other from a high school _ who were visiting the Capitoline Museum on Thursday morning, when two of the paintings were punctured and a pencil line was drawn on a third.

People who visited in tour groups Thursday also were being questioned, said Capt. Roberto Conforti, of the paramilitary police’s art squad.

One of the punctured works, ``Pianist and Checker Players,″ was on loan from Washington’s National Gallery, which sent experts to inspect the damage. A spokeswoman, Nancy Starr, said the experts found the damage to be ``minor and reparable.″

The painting, which was to be returned to Washington for repairs, was placed behind locked doors, along with the other punctured canvas _ ``The Japanese woman,″ from a private collection.

``Zorah Standing,″ from Russia’s Hermitage Museum was marked by a pencil but remained on display, one of 200 works illustrating Eastern influences on Henri Matisse, the French artist who died in 1954.

Experts said the three paintings could be repaired in several days.

The exhibit, which began in September, had been scheduled to end Jan. 20 but was so popular it recently was extended to Feb. 1. By mid-January, some 230,000 people had seen it.

The museum, which was closed after the damage was discovered, reopened Friday. The director, Anna Sommella, defended the lack of an alarm system, citing inadequate space. ``There would be a continuous ringing,″ she said.