Stolen Picasso Among Paintings ‘Burned’ in a Romanian Stove

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Vadim Ghirda / AP

A Romanian forensic expert looks at photographs of evidence that was sent by Romanian authorities to be examined in a laboratory of the National History Museum in Bucharest, Romania, on July 18, 2013.

Romania’s National History Museum is examining ashes found in a stove in the tiny village of Caracliu to see if they are the remnants of artworks by some of the world’s most celebrated modernist painters, including Monet, Picasso and Matisse.

Prosecutors told the Associated Press on Wednesday that they were analyzing the ashes found in a stove belonging to Olga Dogaru, the mother of Radu Dogaru, one of three Romanian suspects who allegedly stole seven artworks from the Kunsthal museum in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, last October. The alleged thieves plundered the art museum in the early hours of Oct. 16, taking less than two minutes to steal seven artworks by some of the 20th century’s legendary European master painters — including artworks such as Picasso’s 1971 “Harlequin Head,” Claud Monet’s 1901 “Waterloo Bridge, London” and Lucian Freud’s 2002 “Woman with Eyes Closed.”

The artworks formed part of the collection of the Triton Foundation, assembled by the late Willem Cordia, a Dutch oil and shipping magnate, and his wife Marijke van der Laan over two decades. Consisting of Western artwork from 1870-1970, art experts believe it to be one of the most important private collections in the world. Unluckily, the exhibition at the Kunsthal was the first time the collection had been put on display for the public.

Many in the art world are distressed at the prospect that part of this collection has been irretrievably lost—the paintings could have fetched tens of millions of dollars at auction. According to her statement to the police, Olga Dogaru said that she was worried for her son after his arrest earlier this year, and decided to move the artworks around her village in Caracliu, burying them in a cemetery. In a bid to get rid of the evidence, she decided to burn the entire package containing the seven paintings in a stove used to heat saunas.

“If it turns out to be true, this would not only be a loss for the Cordia family but also for all art lovers,” said a spokeswoman for the Kunsthal Gallery. “It should never have happened – it’s a big loss for us and for everyone who would have seen the paintings in future.”

According to Alice Farren-Bradley, the recoveries case manager at the Art Loss Register, the world’s largest private database of lost and stolen art, it is not unusual for artworks to be destroyed or damaged during thefts. “It’s not how it looks in Hollywood films, where thieves pop canvases out of frames and make it look easy. It’s very complicated, you have to know what you are doing.”

Farren-Bradley also says that it is often the case that, compared to the execution of the theft, thieves put little thought into how they can liquidate their stolen assets. “You get a lot of cases where people panic, and that is when they attempt to hide the items by burying them or storing them.” Dogaru’s decision to bury the paintings, if that is indeed what she did before apparently burning them, would have been incredibly detrimental to their value, says Farren-Bradley.

A similar case to this apparent heist-gone-wrong is the unusual story of Stephane Breitwieser, the convicted French art thief who stole over a billion dollars worth of artwork between 1995 and 2001. Breitwieser claims he stole for his own personal collection, which he kept at his home with his mother. Similarly to Doraglu’s mother, Breitwieser’s mother destroyed this collection after he hearing about her son’s arrest. Farren-Bradley worked on the case, attempting to ID some of the pieces, but they were irrevocably damaged—having been thrown in the river as well as down a garbage disposal unit.

Romanian authorities expect the analysis of the ashes to take months. But even if Doraglu’s account proves to be true, it won’t put off criminals lured by the prospects of stealing art—high-end artworks appear to be a recession-proof asset, fetching higher and higher prices at auctions. The FBI, which describes art theft as “like stealing history”, estimates the criminal market to be worth $6 billion annually, double what it was a decade ago.

with reporting by Katie Harris / London