July 17, 2014

Kunsthal Rotterdam Art Theft: Paying for The Heist

Picasso's 1971 Harlequin
by Liza Weber, ARCA '14 Student

Lawyers of convicted art thieves of the Kunsthal Rotterdam Heist appeal court’s ruling on grounds that the “responsibility for the theft rested solely with the museum”.

Rapsinews reported that the defense for Radu Dogaru, his mother Olga, Eugen Darie and Adrian Procop are appealing the Romanian courts ruling of €18.1 million to be paid to the paintings’ insurers, since the museum had not taken “proper security measures”. The thieves’ lawyers consider “no night guards on the premises” and security “monitored offsite by a private company” as supposedly improper measures.

Dick Drent, Corporate Security Manager for the Van Gogh Museum, contends “to have guards on site is a risk” however. Recalling the 1990 Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Heist, where thieves posing as Boston police officers duped the guard on duty, Drent explicated that security personnel “can be used for blackmail, or even taken hostage”.

When I questioned Drent whether the lawyers appeal is as though a last reserve to get their ‘crooks off the hook’, he responded: “It is very easy to lay the problem on the other party—the security was not ok, the paintings were not originals—but we are still dealing with a theft…if the paintings are not real, why were they stolen?”

And why did the thieves go to such tale-spinning lengths to account for their disappearance? The seven still missing paintings suffered an “ignominious” fate; smuggled to Romania in pillowcases, the story goes that the mother of the alleged heist ringleader, Olga, claimed she to have buried the artworks in Caracliu’s village cemetery only to unearth them so as to cook them in her oven, as if “burning a pair of slippers,” art critic Pavel Susara told the Guardian.

It’s a twisted tale with possible substance, however. In July 2013, the director of Romania's National History Museum, Ernest Oberlander-Tarnoveanu, told the Associated Press that fragments of paint, painting primer, canvas, and copper nails—some of which pre-dated the 20th century—were recovered from Olga’s oven by museum forensic specialists.

When I related the story of the paintings’ destruction to Drent, he intercepted, “no, I don’t believe that story”. He rather predicts, as is the case for the “two missing Van Gogh paintings of the 2002 robbery,” that they will “resurface in due time”. 

But resurfacing where we might question? Identifiable artworks, once stolen, are near impossible to sell on the open market at anything like their auction value. Making an example of Van Gogh’s 1889 Sunflowers “estimated at unthinkable millions,” Drent rhetorically questioned: “Since it will never be on the market, why do we ever try to affix a price?”

Van Gogh’s Sunflowers is priceless. As is Picasso’s 1971 Harlequin Head and Monet’s 1901 Waterloo Bridge, to name but two of the masterpieces stolen from the Kunsthal Rotterdam in 2012 whilst temporarily on display. Which is not to say that nobody is responsible for reimbursement of the damage done to the paintings…

Rather, where the thieves’ lawyers appeal is for Dick Drent but “a diversion,” and subsequently “a non-issue,” Radu Dogaru, mother Olga, Eugen Darie and Adrian Procop will surely pay the price.

Ms. Weber is a freelance journalist.


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