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Stolen Masterpieces Feared Burned In Romania

  • Eugen Tomiuc

One of the biggest art heists in years appears to have ended with a mother doing what she felt she had to do to save her son.

Olga Dogaru says she burned the art as criminal investigators turned their suspicions on Radu Dogaru, one of three Romanian suspects charged with stealing masterpieces from Rotterdam's Kunsthal gallery in October 2012.

The stolen paintings were: Pablo Picasso's 1971 "Harlequin Head"; Claude Monet's 1901 "Waterloo Bridge, London" and "Charing Cross Bridge, London"; Henri Matisse's 1919 "Reading Girl in White and Yellow"; Paul Gauguin's 1898 "Girl in Front of Open Window"; Meyer de Haan's "Self-Portrait," from around 1890; and Lucian Freud's 2002 work "Woman with Eyes Closed."

It was the biggest art theft in the Netherlands in more than a decade. The stolen works have an estimated value of between 100 million and 200 million euros ($130 million-$260 million).

Olga Dogaru told investigators that after her son's arrest in January she initially buried the paintings in an abandoned house and then in a cemetery in the village of Caracliu in the Danube Delta.

She later dug them up and burned them in February in an attempt to destroy evidence that could have incriminated her son, the alleged mastermind of the heist.

'A Gigantic Loss'

Ernest Oberlander-Tarnoveanu, the director of Romania's National History Museum, says forensic specialists have been analyzing the ashes since March and are expected to submit their findings to prosecutors as early as next week.

Oberlander-Tarnoveanu says investigators have established that some of the ashes come from materials used by painters decades ago.

"Some of these pigments are very toxic and such [paints] are not used anymore. We've also found nails used to pin the canvas onto the frame, nails that are not being produced anymore," he says. "They were made manually by craftsmen out of copper -- a material that is not used anymore."

Oberlander-Tarnoveanu says the ashes indicate they come from a wide range of paintings. "It is clear enough that several types of paintings were burned," he says. "There are fragments of canvas, there are remains in different colors: red, green, yellow, blue."

The thieves, who operated a prostitution-and-shoplifting ring in the Netherlands, took advantage of lax security and broke into the gallery on October 16. They used cheap plastic bags to carry the art to a getaway car and reportedly were almost stopped by a traffic-police patrol.

Radu Dogaru and the two other suspects have remained in custody as investigators sought the paintings and collected evidence.

The suspects, who are not believed to have specialized in art burglary, apparently did not realize the value of their loot.

The stolen paintings came from the private Triton Foundation, a collection of avant-garde art. It was the biggest art theft in the Netherlands since 20 works disappeared from Amsterdam's Van Gogh Museum in 1991.

Oberlander-Tarnoveanu says that if it is established beyond a doubt that the paintings were destroyed, it would amount to "a monstrous crime and a gigantic loss."