Ash from the stove of a Romanian woman whose son is charged with stealing seven paintings from a Dutch museum – including a Picasso, a Monet and a Freud – contains paint, canvas and nails, authorities have said.
The finding suggests Olga Dogaru may have been telling the truth when she told officers she had burned the canvasses, stolen from a Rotterdam museum last year.
Ernest Oberlander-Tarnoveanu, director of Romania’s National History Museum, said museum forensic specialists had found “small fragments of painting primer, the remains of canvas, the remains of paint” and copper and steel nails, some of which pre-dated the 20th century. “We discovered a series of substances which are specific to paintings and pictures,” he said, including lead, zinc and azurite.
He refused to confirm that the ashes were those of seven paintings stolen from Rotterdam’s Kunsthal gallery last year, because he said it was not his place to do so. He said justice officials would make that decision.
He did say, however, that if the remains were from the paintings, it was “a crime against humanity to destroy universal art” .
He said forensic specialists at the museum have been analysing ashes from Mrs Dogaru’s stove since March, and will hand results to prosecutors next week.
The seven paintings were stolen last October in the biggest art theft to hit the Netherlands for more than a decade. Thieves broke in through a rear emergency exit of the gallery, grabbed the paintings off the wall and fled, all within two minutes. The stolen works have an estimated value of tens of millions of pounds. They include: 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 circa 1890; and Lucian Freud’s 2002 work Woman with Eyes Closed.
Three Romanian suspects were arrested in January, but the paintings have not been found.
Romanian prosecutors say Olga Dogaru – whose son is the alleged ringleader of the gang – claims she buried the art in an abandoned house and then in a cemetery in the village of Caracliu.
She said she later dug up the paintings and burned them in February after police began searching the village for the stolen works.
Prosecutors have not said whether they believe her account, but Pavel Susara, a Romanian art critic, said the story has the ring of truth.
“Olga Dogaru describes how she made the fire, put wood on it and burned the paintings, like she was burning a pair of slippers,” he said. “She’s either a repressed writer or she is describing exactly what she did.”
Now that the museum staff have apparently found exactly what forensic experts said they were seeking – materials such as canvas, wood, staples, and paints that indicate the ashes were the remains of artworks. Their next step will be to compare them to what is known about the missing paintings, which given their quality and status would be well-documented in photographs and condition reports.
Art market experts said the Rotterdam thieves may have discovered what many art thieves have done before them – that easily identifiable paintings by famous artists are extremely difficult to sell at anything like their auction value.
“Criminals who are successful in their usual endeavours are often undone by a foray into art theft,” said Robert Korzinek, a fine art underwriter at insurer Hiscox.
“They steal these works of art … and then they have the problem that they can’t dispose of them.”