Did Romanian mom torch Monet, Matisse, and Picasso along with her slippers?

The art world fears that the mother of a man suspected in the theft of seven masterpieces from a Dutch art museum burned the priceless evidence. 

Peter Dejong/AP/File
The empty space where Henri Matisse' painting 'La Liseuse en Blanc et Jaune' was hanging is seen at Kunsthal museum in Rotterdam, Netherlands, last October. A Romanian museum is analyzing ashes found in a stove to see if they are the remains of seven paintings by Picasso, Matisse, Monet and others that were stolen last year from the Netherlands, an official said Tuesday.

Did a cache of priceless stolen art go up in smoke in a Romanian village?

That's what the art world is afraid of, amid reports that museum forensic specialists from Romania's National History Museum are analyzing ashes found in an oven in the village of the mother of the suspected heist ringleader.

The Associated Press reports that according to Ernest Oberlander-Tarnoveanu, the museum's director, investigators found "small fragments of painting primer, the remains of canvas, the remains of paint" and copper and steel nails, some of which pre-dated the 20th century, in an oven in the village of Caracliu where Olga Dogaru lives. Mrs. Dogaru's son was arrested in January in connection with the theft of seven paintings – including works by Matisse, Monet, and Picasso – from Rotterdam's Kunsthal museum last October.

Olga Dogaru says she first buried the art in an abandoned house and later in a cemetery in the village. But in February, when investigators began searching the village, she says she dug them up and burned them, reports BBC News.

"I placed the suitcase containing the paintings in the stove. I put in some logs, slippers and rubber shoes and waited until they had completely burned," the Romanian Mediafax news agency reported her as saying.

Six Romanians have been charged with involvement in what was the biggest art theft in the Netherlands since 20 works disappeared from Amsterdam's Van Gogh museum in 1991. They go on trial next month.

Mr. Oberlander-Tarnoveanu said that investigators "discovered a series of substances which are specific to paintings and pictures," including lead, zinc, and azurite, in the oven. And while he would not say whether the ashes belonged to the stolen paintings, he said that if they did, it was "a crime against humanity."

The stolen works were Pablo Picasso's 1971 "Harlequin Head"; Claude Monet's 1901 "Waterloo Bridge, London" and "Charing Cross Bridge, London"; Henri Matisse's 1919 "Reading Girl in White and Yellow"; Paul Gauguin's 1898 "Girl in Front of Open Window"; Meyer de Haan's "Self-Portrait" of around 1890; and Lucian Freud's 2002 work "Woman with Eyes Closed." The BBC writes that they were worth between $130 million and $260 million.

The pieces were taken last October in a daring theft from the Kunsthal, which was showing them as part of an exhibition called Avant-Gardes, a selection of 150 works from the Triton Foundation Collection, privately assembled by wealthy Dutch entrepreneur Willem Cordia and his wife, Marijke.

The museum had “state-of-the-art" security, according to its director, though it was purely technological – no guards were present on site. Ton Cremers, a consultant on museum security, told the Monitor at the time that the works of art, which could easily be seen from outside through the windows, were perhaps too visible. “You want works of such value in the heart of your building, in a separate space,” Mr. Cremers said.

Cremers also warned that chances of recovery were slim.

“For paintings, that chance is around 30 to 40 percent. On average it takes about seven years,” he says. But he notes that there is no guarantee of recovery, pointing to two works by Vincent van Gogh that were stolen from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam in December 2002. Two thieves were sentenced for that crime in 2005, but the stolen paintings have never been recovered.

Chris Marinello of the Art Loss Register, which specializes in tracking down stolen artworks, told the AP that if Dogaru did indeed destroy the paintings, "this isn't the first time the mothers of art thieves have come to the rescue of their son."

One case involved a prolific French criminal named Stephane Breitwieser, who stole more than 200 works from small museums across Europe in the late 1990s.

His mother admitted to destroying dozens of the works after police began investigating her son. She cut up paintings, stuffed the remnants down her garbage disposal, and threw valuable jewels and other antiquities into a canal.

She was arrested after some of the items resurfaced. "Old Masters were washing up on the bank," Marinello said.

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