July 28, 2013

Kunsthal Rotterdam Theft: Facebook played a part in Romanian sting operation to identify art thieves

Andrew Higgins reporting July 26 for The New York Times from Carcaliu, Romania in "A Trail of Masterpieces and a Web of Lies Leading to Anguish", describes one of the admitted thieves as using the internet in a failed attempt to dispose of seven paintings stolen from the Kunsthal Rotterdam on October 16, 2012.

Mr. Higgins claims that Radu Dogardu used Facebook to tell alleged accomplice Mihai Alexander Bitu that he would agree to sell the stolen artworks to a local wine producer for 400,000 euro (US $531,000). However, the supposed buyer of the stolen paintings was cooperating with a Romanian prosecutor, Raluca Botea, in an "elaborate sting operation", according to Higgins who indicated that he'd seen 'a record of the exchange' on the social networking site.
Just a few hours later, however, the operation fell apart when Mr. Dogaru received a warning that the police were tapping his cellphone. Today, six months on, the fate of the paintings is still unknown, as law enforcement authorities in Romania and the Netherlands, as well as art lovers around the world, struggle to penetrate the fog of claims and counterclaims about what happened to the masterpieces, from the Kunsthal museum in Rotterdam.
Have they been burned, as Mr. Dogaru's mother, Olga, has at times claimed? Or perhaps spirited away by a tall mystery man in a fancy black car, as she has asserted at other times? Or could they, as many in the desolate village of Carcaliu believe, simply be hidden somewhere in this rural corner of Romania?
Mr. Higgins points out that the prosecutor, Mrs. Botea, has found 'contradictory lies' in what the Dogaru mother-and-son have told her office. This article looks at the village, the personal history of the suspect, and quotes 'an official indictment' that claims that the morning after the theft of the Kunsthal Rotterdam that Dogaru took five of the stolen paintings to Brussels to sell them to a mobster known as "George the Thief" then carried them back to Rotterdam after the sale failed.
Mr. Dogaru appears to have hidden the works initially in his family home but later moved at least some of them in a suitcase to the house of his mother’s sister, Marfa Marcu. Mrs. Marcu, in an interview, said she had never opened the suitcase. She says she last saw it when her sister took it away, along with a shovel, soon after Mr. Dogaru’s arrest. 
Mrs. Dogaru has told prosecutors that, with the help of her son’s girlfriend, she buried the case in the yard of an abandoned house. After a few days, they dug it up, wrapped the paintings in plastic and buried them in a nearby cemetery. 
The trail then goes cold. In an interview with prosecutors on Feb. 27, Mrs. Dogaru said that sometime in January, this time acting alone, she dug up the paintings and, desperate to destroy the evidence of her son’s theft, brought them home and burned them all — in a stove used to heat water for the bathroom and a sauna. 
How she managed to do this is not clear. The stove in which Mrs. Dogaru claimed to have shoved all the artworks is barely a foot wide and seems far too small to contain what would have been a bulky bundle of canvas and wood. 
In a written statement on Feb. 28, Mrs. Dogaru retracted the incineration story and said she had, in fact, handed the paintings to a Russian-speaking man, about 40, who arrived at her house in a black car. She explained that her son, whom she visited in prison to get instructions, had told her to expect such a visitor and to give him the paintings.


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