Art Thief Mum on Missing Masterpieces

Bucharest -- The accused ringleader of Romanian thieves who stole seven works by artists including Picasso and Matisse won’t reveal where five are stashed after his request to be tried in a Dutch court was denied, his lawyer said.

Art collectors of Art Kabinett social media network have been following the twists and turns of this notorious art heist.

The trial opened this week in the October 2012 theft of seven artworks, insured for a combined 18 million euros ($24 million), from the Kunsthal museum in Rotterdam.

Defendant Radu Dogaru, who admitted stealing them with two accomplices, offered in August to return five of the paintings in exchange for being tried in the Netherlands.

“My client has made a 180-degree turn and is now saying: if the Dutch authorities don’t want to take me, nobody will ever see those paintings again,” Dogaru’s lawyer, Catalin Dancu, told reporters in court today. The five artworks are currently abroad and “in the custody” of a Russian, who is trying to sell them, Dancu said.

The theft of works by Pablo Picasso, Claude Monet, Lucian Freud ('Woman with Eyes Closed, shown above), Henri Matisse, Paul Gauguin and Meyer de Haan ranks among the most spectacular art heists of the last decades.

The case has turned on whether any of the artworks still survive after Dogaru’s mother, Olga Dogaru, first confessed to burning all of them in her stove, only to withdraw her statement on July 22. She now claims that none were incinerated.

At an Aug. 13 pretrial hearing in Bucharest, Dogaru’s lawyer revealed his client was trying to avoid a more-stringent sentence in his homeland by offering to return the five under his “control” in exchange for being transferred to Holland and, if convicted, serving his time there. Dogaru claims that the other two pieces are in Belgium, where he has no control over them.

Insurance Payout

He is now asking for a simplified legal procedure in Romania, where he could be handed a sentence of 14 years in prison, Dancu said.

Insurer Aon Plc (AON) paid 17 million euros to Triton Foundation, which owned the artworks at the time of the theft, according to Dancu and Maria Vasii, a lawyer for Eugen Darie, who is accused of being the driver in the heist.

A scientific analysis of the ashes in Olga Dogaru’s stove showed they contained fragments of oil paintings, according to Ernest Oberlander-Tarnoveanu, the director of the Romanian museum that carried out the tests.

Romanian prosecutors sent the ashes to a museum in the Netherlands to carry out a new forensic analysis because a test conducted by the Romanian museum isn’t conclusive, Dancu said.

Blue-Suede Shoes

The opening session was delayed for several hours after the judge fined Dancu 5,000 lei ($1,488) for being late and wearing a pair of suede sneakers into court. Dancu in turn, asked for the judge to be replaced, a request that was rejected.

The thieves stole the paintings in less than three minutes from the Kunsthal after they forced an emergency door open with a set of pliers, according to the prosecution’s file.

They “never for a moment believed that the paintings were original after stealing them proved to be so easy,” Dancu said.

The stolen paintings belong to a private collection managed by the Triton Foundation, started by Rotterdam port entrepreneur Willem Cordia. The collection consists of about 250 paintings, drawings and sculptures from the period 1860 to 1970.