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Burned Paintings Found in Stove Ashes of Suspect’s Mother

July 26, 2013

'La Liseuse en Blanc et Jaune'

"La Liseuse en Blanc et Jaune" by Henri Matisse. Source: Police Rotterdam/AP via Bloomberg

Ashes found in a stove in Romania owned by the mother of a suspected art thief contained fragments of oil paintings, said Ernest Oberlander-Tarnoveanu, the director of the museum that analyzed the charred remains.

The National History Museum’s science laboratory in Bucharest has submitted its initial report to the prosecutor for the trial of Radu Dogaru and suspected accomplices, Oberlander-Tarnoveanu said by telephone from Munich.

A Bucharest court is investigating the October 2012 theft of seven paintings from the Kunsthal museum in Rotterdam. The works, together worth tens of millions of dollars, are by Pablo Picasso, Claude Monet, Lucian Freud, Henri Matisse, Paul Gauguin and Meyer de Haan. Dogaru’s mother, Olga Dogaru, at first confessed to burning the paintings only to withdraw her statement on July 22.

“We found a lot of pigments used in professional oil paints and a large number of these fragments of pigment were attached to canvas primer which bore the imprint of canvas,” Oberlander-Tarnoveanu said. “The conclusion is that somebody burned oil paintings in the stove.”

The Rotterdam burglary ranks among the most spectacular art heists of the last decades. Comparable incidents are the 2010 theft of five paintings -- also including works by Picasso and Matisse -- from the Musee d’Art Moderne in Paris, and the 1990 burglary from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston of art worth an estimated $500 million.

Trashed Picasso

In neither case has the lost art been retrieved. Thieves often destroy or hide their booty when they realize the difficulty of converting stolen masterpieces into hard cash. The thief who stole Picasso’s “Pigeon With Green Peas” from the Musee d’Art Moderne threw it into a trash container that was emptied before the painting could be recovered.

Oberlander-Tarnoveanu said the purpose of the analysis was not to determine the identity of the burned paintings, which he said would in any case be difficult, but to determine whether the ashes included paintings. The laboratory also found tacks used to nail canvas on to a wooden chassis -- both the modern type inserted with a pneumatic gun, and pre-industrial tacks produced by a blacksmith.

The colors of the pigments discovered included widely used yellows, greens and Prussian blue, he said.

“We also found large quantities of lead white and zinc whites often used to increase the volume of more expensive paints and used in primers,” he said.

Louvre Laboratory

Catalin Dancu, Olga Dogaru’s lawyer, told reporters on July 22 that the defense plans to have all the evidence sent to the Louvre laboratory “to clarify once and for all whether the paintings were destroyed or not.”

Dancu said he did not believe the paintings had gone up in flames, adding that if his client “thinks her statement in court that she didn’t burn the paintings is going to help her, it’s her right to make it.”

Oberlander-Tarnoveanu said he would welcome further tests at the Louvre, for example.

“They would confirm our findings,” he said. Though the National History Museum has state-of-the-art laboratory equipment, it lacks a synchrotron and the Louvre has one.

“A synchrotron can measure smaller particles,” he said. “They would find more pigments than we found.”

Oberlander-Tarnoveanu, an archaeologist who specializes in gold and silver, said it may never be possible to identify the paintings definitively from the ashes. If the owner had conducted previous analysis or restoration, it may be feasible to match the pigments closely, he said.

The two Monet works stolen by the thefts were pastels, and the Picasso was a drawing. The museum’s analysis found no evidence of the works on paper, Oberlander-Tarnoveanu said.

“If they were burned they left no traces,” he said. Identifying particles of paper and pastel in the ashes would be “beyond the technology of the museum” he said.

Muse highlights include New York and London weekend guides and Lewis Lapham on history.

To contact the writer on the story: Catherine Hickley in Berlin at chickley@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.


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