Stolen Rotterdam Art Likely Incinerated

Bucharest -- 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 Romania's National History Museum’s science laboratory.

Art collectors of ArtKabinett social media network are naturally concerned that all the stolen artworks are now destroyed.

The laboratory has submitted its initial report to the prosecutor for the trial of Radu Dogaru and suspected accomplices. Dogaru is charged by a Bucharest court with the theft of seven paintings in October 2012 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. Shown above is Matisse's "La Liseuse en Blanc et Jaune".

Dogaru’s mother, Olga Dogaru, at first confessed to burning the paintings but withdrew 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 none of the above cases 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 in Paris “to clarify once and for all whether the paintings were destroyed or not.

Though the Bucharest museum has state-of-the-art laboratory equipment, it lacks a 'synchrotron' and the Louvre has one. A synchrotron can measure smaller particles which could find more even pigments.

Oberlander-Tarnoveanu 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 is presently beyond the technology of any museum.