Romania: Trio admit stealing precious artworks

One of the lost canvasses 'Girl in Front of Open Window' by Paul Gaugain. Picture: AP
One of the lost canvasses 'Girl in Front of Open Window' by Paul Gaugain. Picture: AP
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Three Romanians have admitted stealing seven paintings, including works by Lucian Freud, Picasso, Monet and Matisse, from a Rotterdam museum in a night raid that shocked the art world.

Radu Dogaru, Alexandru Bitu and Eugen Darie, yesterday told a Bucharest court they took the multi-million-pound paintings from the Kunsthal Museum in October 2012.

They were charged with the theft and of bringing the paintings into Romania.

The works have never been found, and are thought to have been burned by the mother of one of the three accused.

In their depositions, the suspects, who were arrested in January, said they tried to sell the paintings on the black market in Romania, then left them with Dogaru’s mother, Olga.

Gang leader Dogaru said when he stole the paintings on the night of 15-16 October, he thought they were fakes. “I could not believe you could enter as easily as that,” he said. “The security was practically non-existent. The door was closed but not blocked. I entered practically just with a screwdriver.”

He told the court that the paintings were handed over to a Russian Ukrainian whom he identified as Vladimir Vladimirenko.

He also claimed that at one point he had told a Dutch prosecutor that he would return five of the paintings to authorities in the Netherlands, but that they declined the offer, asking for all seven.

Dogaru denied the paintings had been burned in his mother’s stove. He said traces of paint, canvas and nails identified in the ash by a Romanian museum could have been from a fence with handmade nails or from 19th-century icons.

Olga Dogaru, who is charged with handling stolen property, had told investigators she burned the paintings, but later retracted her admission. Six Romanians have been put on trial in the case, including one being tried in absentia and another who is not under arrest.

Defence lawyer Catalin Dancu yesterday told reporters his client said he had inside help in the heist. “That person helped them so that the one open door was the way in to the museum,” he said.

Dogaru refused to reveal the alleged accomplice’s identity.

“Radu Dogaru has said ‘my life and my safety are more important than revealing the person’s name’,” Mr Dancu said.

Asked by a judge whether he had inside help, Dogaru said: “I couldn’t say if the theft was ordered. If Dutch [officials] do their job we will learn what happened.”

A spokeswoman for the museum declined to comment.

At a previous trial hearing last month, Dogaru said he would disclose the whereabouts of the paintings if his trial was moved to the Netherlands. Dogaru and his alleged accomplices all come from the same region in eastern Romania but lived in the Netherlands, and were already under suspicion for robbery. Their girlfriends allegedly worked as prostitutes.

With little knowledge of art but eager to steal valuable items, the gang settled on the Kunsthal by chance. After searching for museums on a GPS, they initially found themselves at Rotterdam’s Natural History Museum, but realised its exhibits could not be resold. They then chanced upon a poster advertising an exhibition of 150 masterpieces at the Kunsthal.

The stolen works were Harlequin Head by Pablo Picasso, Reading Girl in White and Yellow by Henri Matisse, Waterloo Bridge and Charing Cross Bridge by Claude Monet, Girl In Front Of An Open Window by Paul Gauguin, Self-portrait by Meyer de Haan, and Woman with Eyes Closed by the German-born British artist Lucian Freud.

The paintings have an estimated value of tens of millions of pounds if sold at auction.

The next hearing in the case is on 19 November.