Missing paintings and a fading trace

Communicating on Facebook with a fellow member of a gang that,three months earlier in Rotterdam,had pulled off the biggest art theft in decades

Written by New York Times | Carcaliu,romania | Published:July 30, 2013 5:42 am

ANDREW HIGGINS

On A snowy day in January,Radu Dogaru,sheltering with a computer at his mother’s house in this remote Romanian village,set out the terms for a deal that had eluded him for months.

Communicating on Facebook with a fellow member of a gang that,three months earlier in Rotterdam,had pulled off the biggest art theft in decades,Dogaru said he wanted to “finish the show”.

The paintings,by Picasso,Monet,Matisse and other modern masters,were worth tens of millions of dollars. But Dogaru,desperate to unload the canvasses,told his accomplice,Mihai Alexandru Bitu,that the eager buyer could have “the dogs” for about $531,000 and agreed to bring the paintings to a meeting the next day.

“What do you think about this buyer,so hot suddenly?” asked Dogaru,according to a record of the exchange. “Yesterday he was not interested and now he is hitting the phones.”

What he did not realise,though,was that the buyer,Serghei Cosma,was in fact cooperating with the Romanian prosecutor’s office. The whole thing was an elaborate sting operation.

“We were about to catch them red-handed,” said Raluca Botea,the chief prosecutor in the Romanian crime unit.

Just a few hours later,however,the operation fell apart,when Dogaru received a warning that the police were tapping his cellphone. Today,six months on,the fate of the paintings is still unknown,as law enforcement authorities in Romania and the Netherlands struggle to penetrate the fog of claims and counterclaims about what happened to the masterpieces,from the Kunsthal museum in Rotterdam.

Arrested on the night of January 19,Dogaru,who goes on trial in August,has admitted to stealing the paintings but has given little solid information. He has suggested darkly that other,bigger,fish are involved and will kill him if he talks.

But,according to Botea,much of what Dogaru,29,and his 50-year-old mother,who was arrested in March,have said has scant relation to the truth. In one instance,Dogaru indicated that the robbery in Rotterdam had been an inside job. He pointed a finger at the director of the Kunsthal museum,describing him as a man who wanted to help a wayward son entangled with a Romanian prostitute. In fact,the director is a woman,with young children.

The paintings Dogaru has admitted to stealing in Rotterdam—which include Monet’s Waterloo Bridge,London,Gauguin’s Girl in Front of Open Window and Picasso’s Harlequin Head—started their journey to what many fear was oblivion in a bold raid last year. Dogaru and an associate grabbed seven works shortly after 3 am on October 16,entering and leaving the Kunsthal in just 96 seconds.

Dogaru appears to have hidden the works initially in his family home but later moved at least some of them to the house of his mother’s sister,Marfa Marcu. She says she last saw it when her sister took it away,along with a shovel,soon after Dogaru’s arrest.

Olga Dogaru has told prosecutors that she buried the case in the yard of an abandoned house. After a few days,she dug them up,wrapped them in plastic and buried them in a nearby cemetery.

The trail then goes cold. In an interview with prosecutors,Olga said that sometime in January,she dug up the paintings and,desperate to destroy the evidence of her son’s theft,brought them home and burned them all.

In a written statement February 28,Olga retracted the incineration story and said that she had handed the paintings over to a Russian-speaking man,who arrived at her house in a black car.

Since February,however,Olga has flip-flopped more than once. In a statement in June,she returned to her earlier version of a pyre of art works in the bathroom stove,but last week,again denied this in court. However,the National History Museum in Bucharest,which last week completed a forensic analysis of ash collected from the stove,said,“It is quite likely that something terrible has happened.” NYT

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