Romanian's Tale Has Art World Fearing the Worst

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PARIS -- To Olga Dogaru, a lifelong resident of the tiny Romanian village of Carcaliu, the strangely beautiful artworks her son had brought home in a suitcase four months earlier had become a curse.

No matter, she said, that the works -- seven in all -- were signed by Picasso, Matisse, Monet, Gauguin, Lucian Freud and Meyer de Haan. Her son had just been arrested on suspicion of orchestrating the art robbery of the century: stealing masterpieces in a brazen October-night theft from the Kunsthal museum in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.

But if the paintings and drawings no longer existed, Radu Dogaru, her son, could be free from prosecution, she reasoned. So Mrs. Dogaru told the police that on a freezing night in February, she placed all seven works -- which included Monet's 1901 "Waterloo Bridge, London"; Gauguin's 1898 "Girl in Front of Open Window"; and Picasso's 1971 "Harlequin Head" -- in a wood-burning stove used to heat saunas and incinerated them.

Mrs. Dogaru's confession could be pure invention, and the works could be discovered hidden away somewhere. But this week, after examining ashes from her oven, forensic scientists at Romania's National History Museum appeared on the verge of confirming the art world's worst fears: her tale is true.

In total, the works were valued at hundreds of millions of dollars, but for curators and art lovers, their loss would be irreplaceable.

"Unfortunately, I have a bad feeling that a huge and horrible crime happened, and the masterpieces were destroyed," Ernest Oberlander-Tarnoveanu, the director of the National History Museum, said in a telephone interview on Thursday. If so, he added, it would be "a barbarian crime against humanity."

How Picassos, Matisses, Monets and other precious masterpieces may have met a fiery fate in a remote Romanian village, population 3,400, is something the police are still trying to understand. The theft has turned into a compelling and convoluted mystery that underscores the intrigues of the international criminal networks lured by high-priced art and the enormous difficulties involved in storing, selling or otherwise disposing of well-known works after they have been stolen.

As in so many such mesmerizing capers, including an estimated $350 million worth of diamonds stolen from the Brussels airport recently, the theft itself is often easier than the fencing. It is a quandary, along with the lengths a mother might go to protect her son, that could help explain Mrs. Dogaru's desperate actions, if she did what she says she did.

Mr. Oberlander-Tarnoveanu declined to say whether it had been established that the ash found in Mrs. Dogaru's oven, which the police turned over to his investigative team, was in fact the burned remains of the stolen canvases. "That is for legal authorities to determine," he said.

But he said his team had discovered material that classical French, Dutch, Spanish and other European artists typically used to prepare canvases for oil painting, as well as the "remains of colors, like red, yellow, green, blue, gray." The pigments included cinnabar, chromium green and lazurite -- a blue-green copper compound -- as well as tin-lead yellow, which artists stopped using after the 19th century because of toxicity. In addition, copper nails and tacks made by blacksmiths before the Industrial Revolution and used to tack canvas down were found in the debris. Such items would be nearly impossible to fake, he said.

It would be harder to verify if two other works that were stolen, by Picasso and Matisse, were burned, Mr. Oberlander-Tarnoveanu said. More delicate than the other five works, the two were done in pastels and colored ink on paper. "Unfortunately, it's impossible to assess those remains," he said, "because the burned paper was basically turned into pure carbon."

The stolen works were part of a collection amassed by a Dutch investor, Willem Cordia, that had been exhibited for only a week at the Kunsthal. The police say three men, led by Mr. Dogaru, 28, broke in through an emergency exit and snatched the seven works from the wall in just under two minutes. Mr. Dogaru was arrested in late January in Carcaliu.

The other stolen works were Monet's "Charing Cross Bridge, London," painted in 1901; Matisse's "Reading Girl in White and Yellow" from 1919; and de Haan's "Self-Portrait" from 1890; and Freud's 2002 "Woman With Eyes Closed."

On Thursday, Gabriela Chiru, a spokeswoman for the Romanian public prosecutor, said the authorities were still investigating Mrs. Dogaru's claims and were waiting to examine the findings produced by the museum's forensics team. The investigation was expected to take months to complete.

In the absence of more definitive news, Dutch newspapers and some art dealers have speculated that the plunder might have been a contract job orchestrated by underworld figures, with the thieves picking their targets well ahead of time.

What is clear is that the thieves appeared to have been familiar with the security system at the Kunsthal. Shortly after 3 a.m. on Oct. 16, they deactivated it for a few minutes, then broke the lock on an emergency door without triggering alarms, the Dutch police said. The museum's camera system showed two men entering and leaving in less than 96 seconds, carrying unusually wide backpacks stuffed with the works.

Little is known about what followed, although the Dutch police have said that the works appeared to have been taken directly to a home in Rotterdam.

At some point after that, the Romanian police said, the works made their way to Carcaliu, which Mr. Oberlander-Tarnoveanu, the national museum director, described as "a remote and poor village."

In late January, the Romanian police raided the homes of Mr. Dogaru and several relatives and acquaintances. Jeichien de Graaff, a spokeswoman for the Rotterdam public prosecutor's office, said Mr. Dogaru and several other men had been under investigation on other unspecified charges, "and then the Romanian authorities discovered they might be involved in the art theft in Rotterdam."

Referring to the Dogarus, Mr. Oberlander-Tarnoveanu said, "It seems they were not very honest, because apparently a lot of members of the family had a long judicial history."

Mr. Dogaru's arrest appeared to have spurred his mother into action. In her statement to the police, Mrs. Dogaru said she panicked when she realized the works would be used as evidence against her son. With officers combing the village, she told the authorities that she had looked frantically for places to hide the works, which were all in a large plastic bag.

She hid them in various places, including her sister's home and her garden. Then, she said, she buried them at the village cemetery. But that did not end her anxiety, she told the police.

Fearful that the works could still be discovered, "an idea sprang into my mind," she told the police, that if they were not found, there would be no evidence against her son and his friends.

In her statement, Mrs. Dogaru said she lighted a fire in the stove and went to the cemetery to get the works. "I put the whole package with the seven paintings, without even opening it, into the stove, and then placed over them some wood and my plastic slippers and waited for them to fully burn," she said. "The next day I cleaned the stove, took out the ash and placed it in the garden, in a wheelbarrow."

If her story is true, "then it has extinguished the last remaining glimmer of hope we had that the paintings might be returned," said Mariette Maaskant, a spokeswoman for the Kunsthal. "We've been profoundly distressed by the theft, and the probability of the works being burned only emphasizes the futility of the act."

Mr. Oberlander-Tarnoveanu said he was trying to stay positive, though his team's findings looked grim.

"I am holding out hope until the last moment," he said, "because, you know, we need to keep at least some hope alive."

George Calin contributed reporting from Bucharest, Romania, and Georgi Kantchev from Paris.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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