Exclusive: Romanian expert believes three artworks from Dutch heist destroyed

Mon Jul 22, 2013 12:15pm EDT
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By Radu Marinas

BUCHAREST (Reuters) - Romanian experts believe that three out of seven paintings stolen last year from a Dutch museum, a haul that included works by Picasso and Monet, have been destroyed by fire, the team's head told Reuters on Monday.

Their findings appeared to back testimony by the mother of a Romanian suspected of leading the robbery that she had burnt the paintings to protect her son as police closed in.

"We gathered overwhelming evidence that three (of the seven) paintings were destroyed by fire," said Gheorghe Niculescu, head of the team from Romania's National Research Investigation Center in Physics and Chemistry, which has been examining ashes found in the police investigation.

However, he could not say which of the seven paintings had been destroyed and did not explain how he was certain that the remains originated from works stolen from Rotterdam's Kunsthal museum last October, rather than other paintings.

Also among the stolen artworks, estimated to be worth tens of millions of euros, are pieces by Matisse, Gauguin, Lucien Freud and Meyer de Haan, a 19th century Dutch artist.

In one of the most dramatic art thefts for years, the thieves broke into the Kunsthal building, somehow evading its sophisticated alarm system. None of the seven works has been found.

Romanian police said this year that they had detained members of a gang they suspected of carrying out the robbery. Soon after, Olga Dogaru, the mother of the alleged ringleader, told prosecutors she had burned the paintings to destroy evidence that could incriminate her son.

Prosecutors said they did not know if Dogaru's testimony was true or a trick to throw investigators off the scent and could not reach any conclusions until experts had completed tests on ashes recovered from an oven at Dogaru's home.   Continued...

Gheorghe Niculescu, head of a team of experts from Romania's National Research Investigation Centre in Physics and Chemistry, points at a picture of an evidence, burnt canvas and paint, in Bucharest July 22, 2013. REUTERS/Bogdan Cristel