Woman burns Picasso painting stolen by her son

Romanian also suspected of torching paintings by Monet, Matisse and Gauguin

Isabel Ferrer
A forensic expert examines evidence at Bucharest's National History Museum.
A forensic expert examines evidence at Bucharest's National History Museum. Vadim Ghirda (AP)

The son of Olga Dogaru, from Romania, was involved in a major art theft. Frightened by such risky business, she took the seven famous paintings Radu Dogaru had stolen from Rotterdam's Kunsthal museum in 2012 — which were worth around 18 million euros — and burned them.

According to her story, which has been accepted by the Romanian courts, Radu's six-member gang had left her in possession of the canvases — by Monet, Picasso, Matisse, Gauguin, Lucian Freud and Meijer de Haan — having failed to sell them to the Russian mafia, or to a Romanian fashion designer.

As the police net closed and a search of her village began, she buried the canvases in the local cemetery. Then she decided to dig them up and burn them. "They caught fire immediately and burned to ashes," she stated. However, she was unaware that certain pigments can withstand high temperatures and that traces would remain.

Now the situation is complex. The prosecutor accepts that the pictures have perished, but the analysis of their supposed ashes, which may take months, continues. Pending a final report, the Dutch authorities are clinging to the hope that Olga Dogaru is lying and that the paintings will at last appear. Or that she burned only a few, and kept the rest.

According to Joris Dik, a chemist specializing in art materials at the Technical University of Delft, some colors, such as Naples yellow and titanium dioxide, are resistant to heat. Dik's reputation soared when in 2011 he used fluorescent X-ray methods to discover a Goya painting hidden beneath another, the artist having re-used a canvas.

The Dogaru robbery caused uproar in the Dutch museum world in October 2012. One of Rotterdam's major sights, the Kunsthal was designed by architect Rem Koolhaas, who lives nearby, and boasted a computerized security system, remote-controlled from a external security center, that allowed the police to be called in real time.

On the night of the theft, no security guard was on duty in the room — or anywhere else in the building. The technology supposedly rendered one unnecessary. The Dutch public felt mocked as they watched the video of the robbers walking out with the loot.

The pictures believed to have been lost include Harlequin's Head by Picasso; Monet's Charing Cross Bridge and Waterloo Bridge; Paul Gauguin's Girl in Front of Open Window; and Woman with Closed Eyes, painted by Lucian Freud in 2002.

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