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Historic Aboriginal paintings stolen, recovered within hours

Seven historic Aboriginal paintings were stolen Tuesday from an Australian museum then recovered hours later after the thief apparently changed his mind and dumped them in a park, police said.

The paintings, valued at more than US$460,000 (euro290,000) by officials at the Northern Territory Museum and Art Gallery, were undamaged.

The thief broke into the museum in the northern city of Darwin before dawn and took six paintings from the early days of the Papunya Tula movement -- an artists' collective in central Australia credited with creating a modern Aboriginal style that is now world renowned -- and a seventh of a central Australian landscape.

Police said a blood-spattered broken window, security footage and other clues indicated the culprit had smashed it with a rock and spent 15 minutes inside while security alarms rang out.

About seven hours later, detectives found the seven paintings in parkland near the Darwin Bowls and Social Club, territory police said in a statement.

A 37-year-old man has been charged with unlawful entry, stealing and criminal damage, and will appear in court Wednesday, police said. The man is believed to have acted alone.

The museum's director, Anna Malgorzewicz, said that whatever their market value, the historical significance of the Papunya art was beyond price.

"They are one of the first bodies of work from that particular area, so historically very important,'' she told reporters.

A small group of artists founded the movement in the tiny settlement of Papunya in the early 1970s. Aboriginal tribal motifs were traditionally painted in ochre on bodies or even scratched into the desert sand. The Papunya Tula artists are considered the first to have rendered such tribal art on board or canvas.

The style, often featuring thousands of dots in bright acrylic colors, became known as Western Desert and has become iconic, lining art galleries around the world and even being daubed on a Qantas Airways jetliner.

Paintings by the style's most famous artist, the late Emily Kame Kngwarreye, now regularly sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Papunya is at the western edge of the Macdonnel Ranges, 240 kilometers (150 miles) from the central Australian town of Alice Springs. It was founded in the 1950s as a place for indigenous people of the wider region to live, and the population now numbers just a few hundred people.

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