To catch a thief…
“The thief, as will become apparent, was a special type of thief. This thief was an artist of theft. Other thieves merely stole everything that was not nailed down, but this thief stole the nails as well.”
– Terry Pratchett, Sourcery
This story takes more than its fair share of twists and turns as the police made progress towards catching the robbers.
The first reports came in of a girlfriend to of one of the alleged robbers, an alleged sex worker having been questioned by police; providing valuable intelligence to locate the principal offenders.
There were also reports of several attempts to sell the paintings and also that a former model called Petre Condrat had been arrested for being an intermediary and has been charged with concealment.
By January 2013 three men were arrested in Romania. Radu Dogaru (29 years old) was the alleged master-minder of the heist, was already wanted for questioning by the police for other serious crimes; charges of murder and human trafficking.
The two other accomplices arrested were Eugen Darie and Mihai Alexandru Bitu and a third accomplice Procop (21) is on the run. The men all come from the same region in Romania but lived in the Netherlands were under suspicion for robbery, while their girlfriends allegedly work as sex workers.
Dutch investigators were then due to question them over the heist.
Major criminal art thefts often go hand in hand with far more sinister crime and the art is usually used as collateral for financing other far more serious criminal operations.
Reports the Paintings were destroyed – the steel nails
News reports in July delivered a major blow for art lovers across the world, as information came to light that detectives had found charred remains of what could be the paintings in an oven that belonged to Olga Dogaru, the mother of the ring leader.
Olga Dogaru allegedly had burnt the paintings in February in an oven to destroy the evidence, following the arrest of her son.
“Small fragments of painting primer, the remains of canvas and paint” as well as some copper and steel nails from the 19th Century were found according to Forensic experts.
Also found was a series of substances that were specific to paintings, namely lead, zinc and azurite.
According to a report by W Fleisher in the Huffington Post, James Martin of Orion Analytical, LLC who has taught at the Forensic Science research Unit and FBI Academy Counter-Terrorism on forensic paint analysis has said that one can test the elemental and possibly chemical composition of the burned works to determine whether they are consistent with the stolen works.
The forensic case was ongoing, as the ashes were being tested further before prosecutors proceeded against Olga Dogaru who may now face two trials for aiding and abetting the theft and for the destruction of the artwork.
The Director of Romania’s National History Museum has said that whilst it remains to be seen if all the paintings had been destroyed, if they have been then this would be a “crime against humanity.”
“Conflicting accounts” – paintings lost forever or survived?
The mother and her son have given different accounts as to the whether the art has survived or not.
Mrs Dogaru had admitted hiding the artwork in an abandoned house and in a cemetery in Carcaliu, a village in the Danube Delta region of Eastern Romania. She had said that when the police started to search her home she then dug the paintings up and proceeded to burn them.
She had said “I placed the suitcase containing the paintings in the stove. I then added some logs, slippers and rubber shoes and waited until they had completely burnt.”
She then later retracted her statement and at her preliminary hearing denied she had burnt the paintings.
However ashes from the stove included the remnants of three oil paintings and nails from 19th century frames.
By August 2013 Radu Dogaru and 5 other suspects faced trial in Bucharest in Romania, with one man in absentia. The trial opened and was adjourned until September.
A further surprise emerged at the trial as the suspects offered to return the paintings in exchange for their trial to be moved from Bucharest to the Netherlands.
According to the BBC, at the trial, one of the lawyers said their clients offered to return 5 of the paintings without mentioning the other 2 paintings.
Maria Varsii one of the lawyers said “It is more likely the paintings are intact. My client says they can be handed over to the Dutch authorities. In exchange, they want to go on trial in the Netherlands.”
This not the first time that a mother has destroyed evidence to seek to save their child from prosecution and this is not the first time in an art case.
According to a report provided for Art.insurancenow.com, Chris Marinello of the Art Loss Register referred to the case of Stephane Breitwieser, a French criminal who in the late 1990s stole over 200 works of art from small museums in Europe. In the course of investigations, his mother admitted to destroying dozens of works and throwing some Old Masters into a canal that later resurfaced and were found washed up in the muddy banks of the canal.
Paintings of this importance can be nearly impossible to sell on and it is not uncommon for stolen paintings to go missing for years before being recovered an example is Edvard Munch’s The Scream, stolen from an Oslo gallery in 2004 but was recovered damaged and torn in 2006.
In October, the trial resumed and Dogaru through his lawyer Catalin Dancu repeated his offer that “if the Dutch don’t want to take me, no one sees the paintings.”
Dogaru does not believe he will receive a fair trial in Romania.
Back to the nails
Radu Dogaru told the trial judge “the paintings were certainly not destroyed. I don’t know where they are but I believe they have been sold.”
He was asked about the nails in his mother’s stove and claimed that his family had owned 19th century icons. However, the Director of Romania’s National History Museum said that the nails could not have come from icons.
Whilst Dogaru has refused to say where the paintings are his lawyer Dancu had said previously “All the five paintings that were in Romania are now abroad, in the east. In my opinion, in Moldova.” The other two stolen artworks were said to be in Belgium.
Robber to sue Museum for negligence?
Then most recently at the trial on 22nd October, the next twist in the tail came, the astonishing bragging of the master minder of the heist that it was just a little too easy and according to AFP, he has threatened to sue to museum for failing to do more to stop burglars.
According to a TIME newsfeed Dogaru said at the hearing “I could not imagine that a museum would exhibit such valuable works with so little security.”
Dancu said “ We can clearly speak of negligence with serious consequences” and “If we do not receive answers about who is guilty, we are considering hiring Dutch lawyers to start a legal case in the Netherlands or in Romania.”
Dogaru has already confessed and faces a maximum of 20 years in prison.
His lawyer, Catalin Dancu explained that if the Museum is guilty of negligence then they “would have to share the burden of compensation” and her client faces a multi million pound claim from insurers.
The next hearing date is on 19th November 2013. Watch this space as the trial unfolds.
If you like art heist stories see also Serbian Police recover Stolen Cezanne