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Stolen Art Masterpieces Likely Incinerated

The whereabouts of valuable paintings stolen from the Rotterdam Kunsthal museum last year have long been uncertain, despite the arrest of the alleged thieves. Now the mother of one of the accused says she burned them in an oven.

A year ago, art masterpieces were stolen from a Rotterdam museum and are now believed to have been incinerated to destroy any evidence.

A high-profile art theft from a Rotterdam museum has taken a tragic turn. In one of the most spectacular art heists to hit Europe in decades, last October thieves stole a number of valuable paintings from the Rotterdam Kunsthal, including works by Lucian Freud, Paul Gauguin, Henri Matisse, Claude Monet and Pablo Picasso. Though suspects were arrested in the case, officials had been unable to find the art. Now it appears the works were likely destroyed.

Six Romanians have been charged with the theft, and are currently awaiting trial. Olga Dogaru, the mother of one of the accused, told Romanian TV last week that she had incinerated the paintings in a stove after the arrest of her son. The thieves had been unable to find buyers for the works and she was worried about being discovered, she said.

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.

Forensic specialists have since inspected the stove and found evidence of “painting primer, the remains of canvas and paint,” Ernest Oberlander-Tarnoveanu, director of Romania’s National History Museum, told the Associated Press. Law enforcement officials must now determine whether the ashes came from the missing paintings in question

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 art lovers, their loss would be irreplaceable. 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.

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.

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