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Stealing art is a going concern

A detail from Picasso's “Harlequin Head”
A detail from Picasso's “Harlequin Head”
Photograph AP

Remember the 2012 story of an art thief’s mother, Olga Dogaru, who emptied a suitcase full of modern masterworks by the likes of Picasso, Monet, Picasso, Matisse and Gauguin - all taken from the Rotterdam's Kunsthal museum - into her wood burning stove and watched them burn up?

Why did Olga do it? To protect her son Radu, who was under arrest on suspicion of the robbery, she told the police. The way she saw it, he couldn’t be prosecuted, if the art no longer exists.

Backing her story of the incineration were forensic scientists from Romania’s National History Museum who, sifting through the ashes in her stove, found debris of pigments that haven’t been used since the 19th century due to toxicity, they said. Copper nails made by blacksmiths before the Industrial Revolution, used to tack canvases down, were also found in the debris.

You may remember this column at the time doubting Olga’s story. What if she didn’t burn all the art to make the ashes look authentic? I asked. What if the remaining canvases were safe? (more about that in a moment).

Now it's jail time for Olga’s son Radu Dogaru, 30, six years for masterminding the heist, five years and four months for his accomplice Darie and four years and eight months for Procop. Olga got sentenced to two years.

These sentences seems light given the huge loss of prized masterworks, while a recent court ordered a 10-year prison term for wine dealer Rudy Kurniawan who was found guilty of manufacturing fake vintages.

But wait. The Radu story doesn’t end here. To stave off the millions in claims from the museum insurers, his lawyer Catalin Dancu is contesting the ruling, telling the press, "In the first place, we don't believe the stolen paintings were the originals and secondly it is up to the museum to pay because it took the stupid risk of displaying the artwork without a proper surveillance system."

Chutzpah, no? It’s a little like comedian Flip Wilson’s character Geraldine famously saying, “The devil made me do it.”

Meanwhile, Radu’s prosecutors continue to believe that the stolen canvases were destroyed after he failed to sell them.

Nah. Would Radu have stolen that much art if there weren’t a ready market for it? After all, selling pilfered art is said to be a $2 billion annual industry. In fact, stolen art is so liquid that it's used as collateral for loans. Connoisseur magazine has reported that the Swiss often use art for this purpose. Missing masterpieces are locked in bank vaults and used over and over again.

Henri Matisse's "The Garden" was lifted from a Stockholm museum five years ago and never found. Want to guess where it is?

Stolen art has also been used in another way. In 1990, more than $300 million of uninsured art was stolen from Boston's Isabella Stewart Garner Museum, and two guys who weren't even in on the heist are bargaining their prison terms in exchange for information they claim to have.

Moral of the story? Stealing art pays, as long as you don’t get caught. And here's the thing. Most art thieves don’t get caught. Only five to 10 percent of stolen art is ever recovered.

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