By ANDREW HIGGINS | The New York Times - Friday, July 26, 2013
CARCALIU, Romania — On a snowy day in January, Radu Dogaru, sheltering with a computer at his mother’s house in this remote Romanian village, set out the terms for a deal that had eluded him for months but that now suddenly seemed tantalizingly close.
Communicating on Facebook with a fellow member of a gang that, three months earlier in Rotterdam, had pulled off the biggest art theft in decades, Mr. Dogaru said he wanted to “finish the show” and work out a sale of the stolen paintings to a wealthy local wine producer who had sent word that he was keen to buy.
Radu Dogaru, in a video image. He says he stole famous artworks in Rotterdam. His mother has said she burned them. Copyright 2013 The New York Times Company More Photos
The paintings, by Picasso, Monet, Matisse and other modern masters, were worth tens of millions of dollars. But Mr. Dogaru, desperate to unload the canvasses, told his accomplice, Mihai Alexandru Bitu, that the eager buyer could have “the dogs” for 400,000 euro, about $531,000, and agreed to take the paintings to a meeting the next day to complete the sale.
“What do you think about this buyer, so hot suddenly?” asked Mr. Dogaru, according to a record of the exchange. “Yesterday he was not interested, and now he is hitting the phones.”
What he did not realize, though, was that the buyer, Serghei Cosma, was cooperating with the Romanian prosecutor’s office and planned to attend the meeting with an agent masquerading as an art expert. The whole thing was an elaborate sting operation.
“We were about to catch them red-handed,” said Raluca Botea, the chief prosecutor in a special Romanian unit responsible for fighting organized crime and the leader of the hunt for the art thieves. She was one of numerous people close to the case interviewed for this article. Mr. Cosma declined to comment.
Just a few hours later, however, the operation fell apart, when Mr. Dogaru received a warning that the police were tapping his cellphone. Today, six months on, the fate of the paintings is still unknown, as law enforcement authorities in Romania and the Netherlands, as well as art lovers around the world, struggle to penetrate the fog of claims and counterclaims about what happened to the masterpieces, from the Kunsthal museum in Rotterdam.
Have they been burned, as Mr. Dogaru’s mother, Olga, has at times claimed? Or perhaps spirited away by a tall mystery man in a fancy black car, as she has asserted at other times? Or could they, as many in the desolate village of Carcaliu believe, simply be hidden somewhere in this rural corner of Romania?
“As a citizen of the world, I want to believe that the paintings still exist,” said Ms. Botea, the chief prosecutor. “But as a prosecutor I need facts. I don’t yet know what has happened to them or whether they have been destroyed or not.”
The failure of the sting operation extinguished hopes that the only person who knew — and perhaps still knows — the exact location of the paintings might lead the authorities to his loot, and has left the art world fearing the works may be lost forever. Investigators are not sure how many paintings Mr. Dogaru planned to sell to the bogus buyer and suspect only four, each for 100,000 euros, but that would have been much better than the none they have now.
Arrested on the night of Jan. 19, Mr. Dogaru, who is scheduled to go on trial in August, has admitted to stealing the paintings but has given little solid information about what has become of them. He has suggested darkly that other, bigger fish are involved and will kill him if he talks.
But, according to Ms. Botea, the chief prosecutor, much of what Mr. Dogaru, 29, and his 50-year-old mother, who was arrested in March, have said has scant relation to the truth.
In one instance, Mr. Dogaru indicated that the robbery in Rotterdam had been an inside job. He pointed a finger at the director of the Kunsthal museum, describing him as a man who wanted to help a wayward son entangled with a Romanian prostitute. In fact, the director is a woman, with young children.
Mr. Dogaru’s lawyer, Radu Catalin Dancu, said he had pressed his client to say where the paintings are and who else might have been involved in the robbery other than the small group of small-time Romanian criminals now in detention. But this, said the lawyer, has yielded nothing concrete.
Mr. Dogaru’s mother, meanwhile, has spun a tangled web of contradictory stories. “She changes her story all the time depending on how she sees the interests of her son,” Ms. Botea said.
Small Town Roots
One thing that does seem clear is that after a meandering journey the paintings ended up for a time in Carcaliu, a village mostly inhabited by Russian-speaking Old Believers, a community that broke away from the Russian Orthodox Church in the 17th century and developed a deep wariness of outsiders.
HIDING PLACE The artworks were driven from Rotterdam to Carcaliu
Mr. Dogaru was raised largely by his Russian-speaking mother — his hot-tempered Romanian father kept getting thrown in jail for violent brawls. His 86-year-old grandmother said Mr. Dogaru “prayed, crossed himself and read the Bible.”
“He is a very serious man,” she added.
Villagers say that they occasionally saw Mr. Dogaru at church and that, unlike many local men, he did not get drunk or smoke and took great pride in his physical condition. But, according to a neighbor who declined to be named because he feared retribution, Mr. Dogaru’s only real interest in religion was the theft of icons from village homes.
“When he is here, we have trouble. When he goes, everything is calm,” the neighbor said.
The paintings Mr. Dogaru has admitted to stealing in Rotterdam — which include Monet’s “Waterloo Bridge, London,” Gauguin’s “Girl in Front of Open Window” and Picasso’s “Harlequin Head” — started their journey to what many fear was oblivion in a bold raid last year.
Mr. Dogaru and an associate grabbed seven works shortly after 3 a.m. on Oct. 16, entering and leaving the Kunsthal in just 96 seconds, and leaving no clues to their identity except for blurry, unrecognizable images on security cameras. The alarm sounded only as they left.
The next morning, Mr. Dogaru took five of the stolen paintings to Brussels, where he attempted to sell them to a mobster known as “George the Thief”; failing, he carried the works back to Rotterdam the same day. One of Mr. Dogaru’s partners hid all seven paintings in pillows and drove nearly nonstop to Carcaliua, arriving on Oct. 19, according to a detailed account of the group’s activities contained in an official indictment.
Though only a small village, Carcaliu has so far defied months of insistent probing by the anti-organized crime unit, which hired a man from the area to try to make sense of the archaic Russian spoken there and carried out some 60 searches. The village has resisted giving up its secrets.
Describing the case as the “most difficult” in her 24-year career, Ms. Botea said, “There are nights we cannot sleep because of the frustration we feel about this whole case.”
Mr. Dogaru appears to have hidden the works initially in his family home but later moved at least some of them in a suitcase to the house of his mother’s sister, Marfa Marcu. Mrs. Marcu, in an interview, said she had never opened the suitcase. She says she last saw it when her sister took it away, along with a shovel, soon after Mr. Dogaru’s arrest.
Mrs. Dogaru has told prosecutors that, with the help of her son’s girlfriend, she buried the case in the yard of an abandoned house. After a few days, they dug it up, wrapped the paintings in plastic and buried them in a nearby cemetery.
The trail then goes cold. In an interview with prosecutors on Feb. 27, Mrs. Dogaru said that sometime in January, this time acting alone, she dug up the paintings and, desperate to destroy the evidence of her son’s theft, brought them home and burned them all — in a stove used to heat water for the bathroom and a sauna.
How she managed to do this is not clear. The stove in which Mrs. Dogaru claimed to have shoved all the artworks is barely a foot wide and seems far too small to contain what would have been a bulky bundle of canvas and wood.
In a written statement on Feb. 28, Mrs. Dogaru retracted the incineration story and said she had, in fact, handed the paintings to a Russian-speaking man, about 40, who arrived at her house in a black car. She explained that her son, whom she visited in prison to get instructions, had told her to expect such a visitor and to give him the paintings.
Mrs. Dogaru told the same story to a live-in housekeeper, Florentina Pondichie, and to her and her son’s lawyer, Mr. Dancu. The housekeeper, in an interview, said she had never seen Mrs. Dogaru burn anything in the stove late at night and thought the artwork had been taken away. The lawyer, too, doubted that the paintings were burned. “I believe that somehow, somewhere we will find these paintings,” he said.
Since February, however, Mrs. Dogaru has flip-flopped more than once. In a statement in June, she returned to her earlier version of a pyre of artworks in the bathroom stove but on Monday, she told a panel of three judges in a Bucharest courtroom: “I did not burn them.”
The only hard, but still very tentative, evidence of what might have happened has come from a laboratory at the National History Museum in Bucharest, which last week completed a forensic analysis of ash collected from the stove.
“It is quite likely that something terrible has happened,” said the museum’s director, Ernest Oberlander-Tarnoveanu. Analysis of the ash, he said, had found nails, tacks, color pigments and fragments of canvas indicating the remains of at least four paintings.
“We know that she burned some paintings, but we don’t know if what she burned were the paintings from the Kunsthal,” the director said.
Eyeing a Bigger Prize
When Mr. Dogaru first left Carcaliu for the Netherlands last year, he left behind a reputation for brawling and small-time banditry but gave no indication of a career ahead as a world-class art thief.
Soon after his arrival in Rotterdam, Mr. Dogaru took an unorthodox turn in his quest for new and brighter horizons: He registered his girlfriend, Natasha Timofei, then 18 and a former star pupil at Carcaliu’s village school, on kinky.nl, a pornographic Web site that bills itself as a “prostitution marketplace.”
While the girlfriend made about $2,655 a week from clients — about four times the average monthly salary in Romania — Mr. Dogaru and two Romanian friends spent their time pimping, pumping iron and robbing houses, according to the indictment.
But then they set their sights on a more ambitious goal: stealing masterworks of 19th- and early-20th-century art from the Kunsthal museum.
“He has known only one thing since he was 4 years old, and that is stealing,” said Stefan Karpov, a Carcaliu resident who recalled Mr. Dogaru as a bully notorious for his brushes with the law.
Back in Romania after the robbery, Mr. Dogaru began telephoning contacts, believing that stolen paintings by world-famous artists could be sold in much the same way as stolen luxury watches, which he had some experience in fencing. His contacts included Petre Condrat, a prominent model in Bucharest, who he thought might know wealthy people interested in buying “something different, something special,” according to the prosecutor’s account of the case.
On Nov. 17, he sent an accomplice, Eugen Darie, with two works — a Matisse and a Gauguin — to meet a possible buyer found by Mr. Condrat. An art expert was present to verify authenticity.
After examining the brush strokes and composition, the expert, Mariana Dragu, took the paintings into the bathroom to inspect them under an ultraviolet light. She decided they were genuine. When the meeting finished, she promptly alerted the police. “It was obvious that the paintings did not have a legal origin,” she said last week in a telephone interview.
Panic Sets In
Quickly homing in on Mr. Dogaru as the ringleader, the Romanian anti-organized crime unit started tapping his phones and in the following weeks tracked his increasingly frantic efforts to find a buyer.
“I’m thinking what the hell are we going to do with this luggage,” Mr. Dogaru told his accomplice, Mr. Darie, in early January. “I’m worried that were are going to be stuck real bad.”
Mr. Darie, who has since been arrested and admitted to driving the getaway car in Rotterdam and to driving the paintings to Romania, replied that if a buyer could not be found soon “we are going to bury them” and “we can dig them up in a hundred years if we want.”
Investigators, who were listening in, realized that their quarry was getting desperate and could be lured in, along with the paintings, if they could set up a bogus buyer.
But their hope turned to panic when on Jan. 19, Mr. Dogaru said in a phone conversation that he was “very scared” and suggested that he might burn the paintings. Mr. Dogaru had just been told by Mr. Condrat, the model, that the police were tapping his cellphone.
Investigators say they think Mr. Condrat, who could not be reached for comment, had no specific information about the investigation but was trying to distance himself from Mr. Dogaru.
The call nonetheless upended the sting operation. Fearing that the art work might go up in smoke, the anti-organized crime unit ordered Mr. Dogaru’s immediate arrest. “We had to do something,” Ms. Botea said.
Even from behind bars, Mr. Dogaru has still not given up on trading the paintings. When two Dutch police officers and a prosecutor traveled to Romania in June to interview him, according to Romanian officials who were present, Mr. Dogaru offered to give them four paintings if they moved him to stand trial in the Netherlands, where he apparently judged prisons to be more congenial than those in Romania.
The Dutch authorities allow that Mr. Dogaru might have offered information on the paintings’ whereabouts in return for a trial in the Netherlands, but they deny ever taking the deal seriously.
“He may have offered, but we, from the beginning, have said that we will do it in the usual way, through the Romanian authorities,” said Jeichien de Graaff, a spokesman for the Rotterdam public prosecutor.
“Our aim has always been to get the artwork back.”
George Calin contributed reporting from Bucharest, Romania, and Christopher Schuetze from Rotterdam, the Netherlands.
Read the original article in The New York Times