Olga is on her own. Her son is in prison, being held on suspicion of having committed what they are calling on television ‘the art theft of the century’. She knows that the accusation is correct. Along with friends, her son Radu stole seven valuable artworks from a museum in Rotterdam, loaded them into a car and drove them to Romania.
There, in Carcaliu, a remote village at the poor south-eastern tip of the country, Olga stands in front of the heating stove in the bathroom. A short while ago she lit the fire then stepped out into the biting cold, making her way to the small graveyard opposite her house where, in the dead of night, she dug up the paintings and brought them back inside.
Picasso, Gauguin, Matisse, Monet, Meijer de Haan and Freud. On television they are talking about a loot worth hundreds of millions of euros. The amount is not important to her. The pictures are evidence against her son and destroying the evidence seems like the only way she can help him.
The artworks go up like tindersticks.
Early in the morning of 16th October 2012, seven valuable artworks were stolen from the Kunsthal in Rotterdam. The theft was world news. But what first seemed like a sophisticated burglary by professionals, turned out to be the work of a few small-time Romanian criminals who had no idea what they were getting themselves into. They knew about house burglaries, not art, and they certainly didn’t know about selling art.
This is the story of the Kunsthal robbery, based on the case files and conversations with those involved.
Jan Moerer is first awoken by the sound of his mobile telephone ringing, then his landline. It is 04:28 in the morning. The Kunsthal’s production manager gets out of bed but is twice too late to pick up. The missed calls are from colleague Gert-Jan Knoll, the building supervisor. He calls him back.
An alarm has gone off. Paintings may have been stolen.
Half an hour later, Moerer is walking through the building with two security guards. The Van Gogh is the first thing he sees as he enters the exhibition space. Still Life with Cornflowers and Carnations, one of the Triton collection’s key pieces, is still where it should be. It is a painting of an exuberant bouquet of flowers that Van Gogh painted in 1887, a blue vase with blue cornflowers against a blue background. Jan Moerer is relieved.
Then they turn the corner. Seven empty spaces.
A white spot marks where one of the stolen pieces was mounted. Foto Robin Utrecht / ANP
The Kunsthal, literally meaning ‘art hall’, on the periphery of the Rotterdam city centre does not have its own collection and isn’t really a museum in the traditional sense of the word. The Kunsthal is dependent on artworks loaned by other art galleries and private collectors. Each year, 160,000 people visit the temporary exhibitions set up in three large rooms, collectively a space of 3,600 square metres.
At the Kunsthal there are no security guards at night – cameras and alarms do all the work. Mobile guards from the security company Trigion can be on the scene in twenty minutes if the alarms are triggered. The police are alerted too.
That night, Mehmet Karadurdu and Jordy Rook are driving through a rainy Rotterdam on their inspection rounds of the various companies that buy into Trigion’s services. At 03:20 they get a call from the control room. A burglar alarm has gone off at the Kunsthal on the Westzeedijk. Their PDAs show them the quickest route to the building. When they arrive eleven minutes later, the police are already on the scene. It had taken the officers just five minutes to get to the Kunsthal.
The Kunsthal is a labyrinthine building full of glass partitions, which signalled architect Rem Koolhaas’s international breakthrough. It is constructed so that some of the works are visible from the outside, like a kind of showroom. When they arrived, the policemen walked around the outside of the eccentric building. They didn’t notice that any of the paintings were missing. They were primarily looking for signs that would point to a break-in. There aren’t any, they tell the newly-arrived Trigion security guards. The officers ask whether they need to stay. No, if there are no signs of a break-in, they can go, the guards tell them. Nine times out of time it’s just a false alarm.
When Karadurdu and Rook enter the Kunsthal, the security system’s control panel tells them that various alarms have been activated in exhibition space 1 where for the past ten days 150 pieces from the Triton collection have been hanging. They try to turn off the alarms but don’t succeed. When they take a look in the room, the alarm on the rear emergency exit is blaring out.
The guards turn on the lights. They see the empty spots on the wall, the hooks and wires where artworks should hang. Karadurdu suspects that paintings belong there – next to the empty places are cards with information about the works, but the guards do not draw the conclusion that the paintings have been stolen. Perhaps they’ve been taken down momentarily for maintenance? The alarm on the emergency exit is ringing, but it is still locked and there are no signs of a break-in.
The control room call the emergency contact number they have for the Kunsthal. Building supervisor Gert-Jan Knoll picks up. Should some of the paintings be missing? Knoll doesn’t know and immediately gets Jan Moerer out of bed. He, in turn, hurries to the Westzeedijk, as he tries and fails to get hold of director Emily Ansenk.
As soon as Moerer realizes that there really has been a break-in, he asks the two security guards to call the police. At 05:02, more than an hour and a half after the burglary, Trigion’s control room reports a ‘successful break-in’.
In the exhibition space, Moerer makes a list of the works that have disappeared: Picasso, Matisse, Gauguin, Meijer de Haan, Freud and two Monets. Moerer is the first person to realize the extent of the robbery which will soon become world news.
Just over ten minutes later, at 05:15, the police arrive once again, exactly two hours after two young Romanian criminals forced the Kunsthal’s fire exit and made off with seven works with a total insurance value of 18.1 million euros.
Photo Robin Utrecht / ANP
The plan to steal art was engineered a few weeks previously by Radu, who at 28, is the oldest of a small Romanian criminal gang active in Rotterdam.
From the moment they moved to the Netherlands in the summer, the young men have been breaking into homes. They’ve brought their girlfriends from Romania with them; the girls are now working in prostitution.
Now it is time to up their game, Radu thinks. Art is worth a lot of money, he’s heard, and money is the reason the four Romanian twenty-somethings came to the Netherlands in the first place.
Radu grew up in Carcaliu, a small village in poverty-stricken south-east Romania. No one is surprised he has ended up on the criminal circuit. His family are known in the village as thieves. According to villagers, they haven’t had any paid work since the revolution, yet they have still been able to find the money to start building a monstrous villa on the edge of the village. Radu dropped out of school and caused a lot of trouble, just like his father who, for the past couple of years, has been serving a prison sentence for assault on another villager. Nonetheless, the muscular Radu still managed to win over the prettiest girl in the village, the nineteen year-old Natasha.
Eugen and Alexandru are friends of Radu’s. They grew up in Măcin, a small town nine kilometres from Carcaliu. Life there is not much better. The inhabitants have never got used to the sudden transition from communism to capitalism. In this part of Romania, they haven’t felt any of the advantages of Romania joining the EU in 2007. Houses are falling down, unused bus stops rust away and the roads are terrible. The land is still farmed using horses and carts. The Danube has been emptied of its fish stocks. Europe seems far away. The population of Măcin has dropped by 40 percent over the past decade. Half of the 1,617 houses in Carcaliu are empty. One thousand of the 1,250 inhabitants are pensioners.
Alexandru, a tall muscular man of 23 is the first to leave for the Netherlands in June 2012, along with his girlfriend, Ștefania. There’s money to be earned in the Netherlands, even if it is from prostitution. Ștefania gets her customers through the website www.kinky.nl. She receives them at home in an upstairs flat above a shopping street in the Oude Noorden part of Rotterdam so that Alexandru can offer her protection.
Over the months that follow, Radu and Eugen and their girlfriends relocate to the Netherlands too. Adrian, another good friend of Radu’s suddenly leaves Carcaliu in the summer. A few weeks later, friends read on Facebook that he too has joined Radu’s Rotterdam crew.
“I can’t tell you much yet but there’s been an art theft.”
Photo Robin Utrecht / ANP
At 07:18, a reporter from RTV Rijmond is the first to announce news of the burglary on the radio. After that things move fast. Within an hour, the robbery is major national news. Over the course of the day, the international media follow.
In the hours following the theft very little new information is released. The police spokesperson repeats the same thing all morning: some works of art are missing and in the interests of the case no further information can be released at present. The photographers can see through the glass façade that one artwork in any case is missing. The photo of an empty space on the wall appears on every news site. The information card on the picture reveals to everyone what is missing.
Everyone assumes that it was a well-planned burglary.
On Saturday 6th October, ten days before the Kunsthal robbery, Radu and Eugen set off in search of possible targets. They have no idea where to start but the car’s navigation system provides an answer. Eugen types in ‘museum’, whereby they are directed to the Natural History Museum. That’s no use. Stuffed birds, fossils and seashells are not going to be an easy sell. Then posters draw their attention to another nearby museum, the Kunsthal.
“Avant-gardes, the Triton Foundation’s collection”.
The posters promise a “remarkable exhibition”, compiled from a private collection which has “developed into a world-class collection that includes works by the most important, most influential artists.”
Radu and Eugen buy tickets to check out the “one hundred and fifty works of top international quality” but leave the building after half an hour. The exhibition doesn’t open until the following day. Their hands in their pockets, Eugen and Radu stroll indifferently around the sixteen monumental bronze statues by Frenchman Aristide Maillol, also on show at the time. The sculptures weigh hundreds of kilos. That’s no use. If they are going to steal art it has to be portable.
That evening, Adrian, the youngest of the gang at just twenty years old, is brought up to speed on the plans. The plot will involve just three people: Radu, Eugen and Adrian. Alexandru will not be involved.
The next afternoon they return. Eugen takes his girlfriend Andreea with him so as not to draw attention to himself. They walk hand in hand through the Triton Collection’s space to get a closer look. Radu and Adrian go to the exhibition too, but they pay more attention to the security than the twentieth century avant-garde artworks.
The fire exit is the weak link, Radu tells Eugen after the visit. He thinks that the door can be opened at any time with very little effort. Even from the outside. Just like burgling a house. There are only artworks in the exhibition space, no cameras.
The decision is taken. They will attempt to rob the Kunsthal.
The Kunsthal (bottom left) from above. Photo Robin Utrecht / ANP
Security footage from the Kunsthal
Over the following days, several trips are made to the museum’s surroundings. Radu goes jogging around the Museum Park a few times to reconnoiter the area. They drive to the Kunsthal after dark to see how busy it is. They discover that there are no guards in the building at night.
Some practical issues are arranged too. In a Chinese shop they buy large bags made of black raffia to carry the canvases. They get the sim cards they’ll use in their phones that evening. The clothing of choice falls on black hoodies.
On Thursday 11th October, six days before the break-in, Radu pays a last visit to the museum, this time alone. He spends two hours there going over the plan, step by step. He and Adrian will commit the burglary together. Once they’ve forced the door and entered the building, there will be a Matisse on their immediate right. After that, over to the other corner where Meijer de Haan, Gauguin and Picasso are hanging next to each other, and opposite them, a Lucian Freud. Before they’ve completed their round they can take the two Monets. Within a couple of minutes they’ll be back outside again.
The choice has been made of seven moderately-sized paintings. They are all of a “manageable size” as the police will note down in the first statement. Including their frames, none of the works are larger than 70cm x 70cm. Hopefully they won’t be too heavy, Radu thinks.
The date is set for the night of Friday 12th October. But it’s a clear night, they will be too visible. And there are too many people about on a Friday night. The next night, the same story.
On the night of Monday 15th October, the weather is cloudy and rainy.
Eugen is a burly young man. Like his friends, he has a shaven head, but his white-blond hair and pale, chubby face make him look less tough. Eugen, 24, is the only one of the group who already has children. He and Andreea have a three year-old daughter,Emma. She stayed behind in Măcin where she is being cared for by family members.
Eugen desperately needs cash, it is important that the burglary be a success. His family home is at risk of being repossessed, the bank wants 30,000 euros.
The plan is that Radu and Adrian will commit the burglary. Eugen will take care of transport, he knows of a suitable car. Alexandru has a red Peugeot 306 parked outside his house that he doesn’t use.
The evening of the robbery, Eugen drives to Alexandru’s house. He suggests grabbing a bite at Kapadokya, a kebab shop on the Witte de Withstraat which always stays open until half past five in the morning. They often go there. Eugen also asks whether he can have Alexandru’s Peugeot. He promises to give him a thousand euros the next day for it.
It’s all fine by Alexandru. He doesn’t ask any questions, not even about the many phone calls that Eugen makes to Radu that evening. He knows nothing of their plan to rob the Kunsthal.
Kapadokya isn’t far from the Kunsthal, about 750 metres. Eugen will park the car on the Westersingel, walking distance from the museum. He will leave the boot unlocked so that Radu and Adrian can put the loot in it after the burglary.
In the small, cheerless kebab shop with its aluminium tables, Eugen and Alexandru order themselves pizzas.
The Kunsthal’s fire door is equipped with a panic system: in case of emergency, the door always has to be able to be opened from the inside. When the bar on the inside of the door is pressed down for a few seconds, the electronic lock is deactivated. The push bar then opens the mechanical lock.
The important thing is for this only to be possible when there are people in the building. At night the electronic lock must stay activated, certainly if someone tries to enter from the outside.
What exactly went wrong in the Kunsthal is still not clear but Radu and Adrian were not hindered by the electronic lock. The police think it possible that the two young Romanians knew how to activate the panic system by banging hard against the door from the outside. This could have deactivated the electronic lock. After that the only thing stopping them was the mechanical lock.
And Radu has enough experience of mechanical locks. This is how he carries out most of his home burglaries. You insert something between the door and the doorpost, you push back the latch and you’re in.
Radu and Adrian enter the museum at 03.16.51 hours, 72 minutes before Jan Moerer is awoken by a phone call. The artworks are not alarmed. They are fixed to the wall by cables but it doesn’t take much to pull them away.
Two minutes and 48 seconds later they are back outside on the wet grass. They have closed the door behind them.
The loot is heavier than expected and the three packages are difficult for the two men to carry. Radu calls Eugen and asks him to bring the car a little closer to the Kunsthal. Eugen runs outside, leaving Alexandru alone in the kebab shop.They agree to meet at the crossroads of the Westerzeedijk and the Westersingel, about 300 metres further along.
Radu and Adrian load the paintings into the boot and get in. The plan is to drive to Radu’s house now, but Eugen gets nervous about the number of police cars about. He parks the red Peugeot on the Coolsingel, the main artery to the Rotterdam city centre.
They walk to Radu’s house which takes about half an hour. They’ll pick up the car later, when it’s a bit busier out.
The alarm goes off at a quarter to seven local time. It’s an hour later in Istanbul where Kunsthal director Emily Ansenk is on the road with a delegation from the Rotterdam Economic Development Board. Her days have been filled with visits to exhibitions, excursions, readings and dinners.
She looks at her telephone which is on mute – seven missed calls, all from members of staff. She calls back immediately, realizing that something must be seriously wrong.
There’s no time for emotions. The next call, still in her pyjamas, is to the Cordia family to tell them that seven valuable works from the Triton Collection have been stolen.
The Cordia family’s art collection is one of the top 200 in the world in terms of size. Willem Cordia, who died in 2011 at the age of seventy, earned his money from the port of Rotterdam. Business magazine Quote estimated his net worth at 330 million euros.
He and his wife Marijke began collecting art in the 1970s. As they bought, they developed both their taste and their collection.
After a heart attack in 1996, Willem decided to take things easier. This marked an important moment in his development as a collector. The Cordias decided to collect at least one painting by each of the great masters of modern art. Together they collected around 250 works by more than 170 artists - an almost encyclopedic compendium of the twentieth century.
The Cordias decided to share their art collection with the public, not by founding their own museum but by lending out the collection indefinitely. Rather than waiting to be asked for works, they combed exhibition calendars to see where they might be able to contribute something.
The Avant-garde exhibition was the first time the works had been presented as a single collection. The Kunstal robbery leaves a gaping hole in the Triton Collection which the Cordias have been so generously lending.
She is on the phone even as director Ansenk packs her bags. At a quarter to two Dutch time, her flight from Istanbul lands at Schiphol. The Kunsthal has stayed closed that day. The staff were sent home and visitors were met with a closed door. “Due to the robbery that took place last night in the Kunsthal, we will be closed to the public today,” the note hanging there says.
Kunsthal director Emily Ansenk and chairman of the board Willem van Hassel during the press conference in Rotterdam. Photo Robin Utrecht / ANP
Apart from the Matisse, the public do not yet know which paintings have been stolen. At 17:00, three hours after landing at Schiphol, Ansenk makes a statement to the journalists gathered.
“What happened is a nightmare for any museum director. Despite the Kunsthal’s state-of-the-art security, seven major works from the Avant-gardes exhibition have been stolen. They are works by Picasso, Matisse, Lucian Freud, Meijer de Haan and two works by Monet. These are unique works which have been shown all over the world. They are well-documented and were shown together here for the first time. We, the Kunsthal and the board of the Triton Foundation are shocked by what has happened but we won’t be beaten by this. We have taken the joint decision to open the exhibition again tomorrow and everyone involved would like the public to continue to enjoy this kind of exceptional art collection, a private collection. I would also like to say that this act has hit the entire art world and the museum world like a bomb.”
OAnsenk refuses to say anything about the value of the artworks. She makes no comment about the security system, “pending investigation”. Board chairman, Willem van Hassel, at her side, she limits it to her statement. No questions are answered, there’s just one more thing she would like to add:
“All of the works are described and registered internationally: they are not sellable.”
Radu and Natasha’s house above hairdressing salon Chiq le Frique in the Jonker Fransstraat. Photo Marco de Swart / ANP
The three art thieves sit together in Radu and Natasha’s house above hairdressing salon Chiq le Frique on the Jonker Fransstraat, a shopping street in the centre of Rotterdam. Around six in the morning, less than three hours after the robbery, Radu and Eugen returned to the Coolsingel to pick up the car. At the time, the police investigation was in full swing two kilometres away. Just before sunrise, they took the paintings from the car boot and carried them upstairs and hidden them in the hall cupboard. But what now?
Stolen art is registered in an international database, the Art Loss Register, making it pretty much unsellable. At art fairs like the Tefaf and auction houses like Christie’s and Sotheby’s, the register is consulted to check the works on offer haven’t been stolen.
The idea that rich art lovers commission art thefts is a myth. Art thieves rarely know what they are going to do with their loot. Sometimes it turns out to be a vulgar hostage situation – artnapping. Asking the insurer for ransom money is the only way the thieves can cash in on their loot. An intermediary informs the insurance company that the works can be returned for a finder’s fee, an amount that is a fraction of the market value. This is an attractive offer to the insurer who stands to lose the insured sum otherwise.
This is an option the three Romanian thieves are not aware of. Art is worth money. You should be able to capitalize on that, surely. Radu decides they need to go to Belgium. There, in Brussels, he knows someone who might be able to help, the mysterious George Moise, a man about whom little is known aside from his nickname, ‘George the Thief’.
Radu and Eugen haven’t slept when they get into the red Peugeot at around 08:00 that morning and head south. The paintings remain in the hall cupboard. They fill up with petrol somewhere near the Dutch-Belgian border. When they spot cameras at the petrol pumps they decide that it might not be that sensible to return to Rotterdam in the same car.
At about ten in the morning, they meet George in a café in Brussels city centre. They tell him they have some stolen art and show him an exhibition flyer depicting Lucian Freuds Woman with Eyes Closed, one of the paintings they stole that night. Might George know of a buyer?
He doesn’t but he can help them with the car. He takes the Peugeot 306 and drives it to a small inland harbour on the Charleroi-Brussels canal. There the car is destroyed by the recycling company A. Stevens & Co.
Radu and Eugen return to Rotterdam by train. It’s time to sleep.
Turning on the television more than 24 hours after the art robbery, they realize they’ve made the news. And not just in the Netherlands. Eugen gets a shock.
He discusses the impact of the robbery with Radu. Eugen wants to leave the country as quickly as possible and return to Romania. Radu thinks it’s a good idea if he takes the stolen artworks with him.
That evening, on Wednesday 17th October, they take the paintings from the hall cupboard and remove them from their frames. Without the frames, the stolen paintings are even smaller, most of the works aren’t much bigger than a sheet of paper. Only the two pastel drawings by Monet are a little larger, about the size of a tabloid newspaper.
Andreea doesn’t understand what’s going on. Her boyfriend Eugen didn’t come home the night before last. He finally showed up the next evening but then went straight to bed. “Something to do with work,” he’d said. Now he wants to drop everything and rush back to Romania.
On Thursday evening, Radu and Eugen put the paintings in the boot of the Eugen’s Ford Mondeo. He loads the rest of his belongings into the car too because he’s not planning on returning to the Netherlands. He tells friends he ran over a cyclist, that’s why he’s fleeing the country. Andreea is going with him.
As they leave Rotterdam behind, Andreea is amazed that Eugen is in such a hurry. He drives without stopping, almost two whole days, around 2,500 kilometres. Over the border at Venlo, past Frankfurt, Vienna and Budapest. They sleep in a cheap hotel, just over the Hungarian Romanian border. Then on to the other side of the country, to the area they left a year ago, where the Danube flows into the Black Sea.
Radu flies out a few days later on Sunday 21st October, leaving from Brussels Zaventem airport. He knows someone in Carcaliu who might be able to help them find a buyer.
The large-scale research team searching for clues around the fire exit. Photo Robin Utrecht / ANP
The evening after the theft, the public prosecutor decides to set up a large-scale investigative team, a
They immediately go into “storm phase” – police jargon meaning that speed is of the essence. The crime scene is combed for any trace of the intruders. There isn’t much. Small signs of forced entry on the emergency exit and finger and footprints in the hall. A single camera with very poor image quality has recorded the break-in.
A door-to-door search is conducted, art experts are consulted and all the most obvious scenarios are laid out. Flyers and electronic boards call for witnesses. To prevent further thefts, that same afternoon fourteen large, black planters are placed in front of the glass façade at the side of the museum.
The Friday after the theft, security footage is released and broadcast on Opsporing Verzocht, a Dutch crime watch show. More than a hundred helpful tips come in. People supply names, leads and art gangs. It makes for a lot of work because everything has to be followed up and ruled out. The tips don’t bring the police any closer to the suspects.
Due to the lack of information, there is a lot of media speculation about the value of the paintings. The Dutch media stick to 50 to 100 million euros, in accordance the Art Loss Register’s estimate in London. In the United States, the amount is inflated from 100 million euros in The New York Times and on Bloomberg News, to “hundreds of millions of euros” according to The Huffington Post. In Britain the value yoyos between 60 million (Daily Telegraph) and 310 million euros (Independent).
The actual value is somewhat lower. The morning after the robbery, Willem van Hassel, chairman of the Kunsthal board, arrives at a quarter to ten at the Rotterdam police headquarters to report the theft. Although he notes that it is “quite possible” that the market value is many times higher, he gives them a list with a total insurance value of 18.1 million euros.
The police have other worries. Two weeks after the robbery, TGO Art isn’t a single step closer to solving the case. “We don’t even know where to look for the perpetrators – in the hardcore criminal world or in the art world,” a police spokesperson says.
They pin hope on the security images taken in the weeks preceding the art theft. The perpetrators must have looked around beforehand. For weeks on end, the detectives analyze the hours of security footage from the Kunsthal in search of suspicious behaviour, patterns or other indications.
The inhabitants of Măcin, Eugen and Alexandru’s birthplace, form an isolated community. The closest big city, Brăila, isn’t far away, around 20 kilometres as the crow flies, but the Danube separates them and there is no bridge. A return fare on the ferry costs around ten euros, too much for most of the inhabitants. The average monthly wage in Romania is 340 euros, in Măcin, it is less than 200.
Apart from this, Brăila doesn’t have much to offer. On paper it’s a big city, in reality it’s the Detroit of south east Europe. Beautiful neo-classical theatres, institutes and villas bear witness to better times when the city was a prominent inland port. Now they are empty and crumbling, the promenades are abandoned. Over the last decade, a third of the population has left. Just as Romania lies on the fringes of Europe, the area around Măcin is at the frayed edge of Romania.
On the other side of Măcin is Carcaliu, the village where Radu and Adrian grew up. It is a tiny settlement, originally founded by Lipovans, Russians fleeing from Peter the Great. There is just one tarmacked road. The houses are a mishmash bunch: some are so dilapidated you could call them hovels, others have been neatly done up.
The young men have not been missed in Carcaliu and Măcin. They are known as interlopi, Romanian for criminals. They all have extensive criminal records for vandalism, violence, threats, arms possession and theft.
There is only one person in the entire area of that generation whom everybody is proud of – everyone knows that Petre C. has made something of his life.
Canoeing on the Danube, this was how Petre managed to get out of the village according to its inhabitants. Already at a young age, he spent much of his time taking part in canoeing competitions in the regional capital of Tulcea. He won several youth championships and took gold in the world championship canoe sprint in 2003, in Gainsville, Georgia - 500 metres in a four-man canoe. At other world championships he has taken one silver and two bronze medals.
But Petre is not quite good enough. In Carcaliu he might be celebrated, but the sporting world looks down on him somewhat. Contrary to the other three athletes in his canoe, he has never made it to the Olympic Games. In 2005, he gave up canoeing and worked as a builder in the States for a while. After that, he returned to Romania where he made a striking career change. He became a male model and PA to the eccentric millionaire, Catalin Botezatu, famous in Romania for his role as a jury member in the television programme Romania’s Next Top Model.
Petre, with whom he grew up in Carcaliu, is one of the first people Radu calls upon his return. If there’s anyone who moves in cosmopolitan circles and doesn’t have a problem with stolen goods, it’s the former canoeing champion.
On Friday 2nd November, two weeks after the theft, Radu and Eugen drive to Bucharest together, a journey of more than three hours. They meet Petre around 15:00 in his first-floor apartment overlooking one of the biggest parks in the capital. Radu and Eugen sign in with the concierge.
Eugen holds his tongue but Radu gets straight to the point. He has two paintings for sale. Who by? Petre asks.
The Matisse is easy, Radu remembers it like the car, the Daewoo Matiz. He doesn’t have a mnemonic for Gauguin so he’s written the names on a piece of paper. Petre still doesn’t recognize the names, Radu’s handwriting is illegible.
Petre asks more questions. How did they get the paintings? Are they authentic? What will his cut be if he finds a buyer? No answers. All Radu says is that they got the paintings in France and that they’ll pay him for his work as a middleman.
Nothing happens for a couple of weeks then Petre calls. He’s found someone who might be interested: Constantin Dinescu, an acquaintance of his boss. Like the extravagant millionaire Botezatu, he spends his summers in Mamaia, a spit of land seven kilometres long and 300 metres wide near Constanta. Mamaia with its dozens of apartment buildings, discotheques and restaurants is the Chersonissos of Romania where both partying youngsters and the Romanian nouveau riche alight. Dinescu has made his money in real estate but also deals in antiques and jewelry. He sometimes sells the odd painting.
When Petre approaches him, Dinescu asks him to come over. He shows him the piece of paper with the two names. Matisse and Gauguin. The art dealer’s interest is piqued. He wants to arrange a valuation. What about Saturday 17th November in the afternoon?
Radu sends Eugen with the two paintings in a plastic bag and Petre's telephone number in Bucharest. They meet at a McDonalds. After that they go to Cartierul Sebastian, a run-down area full of ramshackle houses and grey apartment blocks from dictator Ceausescu’s time. The valuation will take place there in an empty single-roomed apartment belonging to Dinescu.
Dinescu has brought in an old acquaintance for the estimate: Mariana Dragu. She works as curator of European art at the Muzeul National de Arte al Romanei, Romania’s leading art museum. The 59 year-old art historian is a member of Codart, the international network of specialists in Dutch and Flemish masters. She supplements her income by valuing art on the side. She has brought along a special lamp to examine the works in ultraviolet light.
When she enters the apartment, the works are on the table. The first thing she thinks is that they are fakes. It’s impossible that this kind of foreign art would be available on the Romanian market. She looks at the people present. Next to Dinescu is a strong young man with a strawberry blond crew cut.. He is wearing a red tracksuit top, blue jeans and spotless white trainers. His albino-like appearance stands in stark contrast to the other man there: a well-groomed, handsome man in a beautifully fitted suit. Petre she finds charming.
Mariana Dragu doesn’t recognize the works as the stolen paintings from the Kunsthal. She had heard there had been a robbery there but didn’t go to the trouble of finding out the details. When she turns over the paintings she begins to doubt her first instinct. She sees a sticker from Hasenkamp, a well-known company specializing in art transport.
Dragu takes the works to the apartment’s bathroom which she uses as a dark room. She studies the paint, the pigments and the signatures. Everything is as it should be. These paintings are genuine, she says as she comes out of the bathroom.
She asks the men what they know about their origin. The works come from England, they say. Dragu asks whether they mean that they were stolen there. A long silence follows. “These paintings are really valuable. Worth a lot of money,” Eugen, the man with the red tracksuit top, says, he saw it online.
The word “stolen” is not mentioned again but everyone in the room knows what is going on. Dragu tells them that the paintings are not worth a thing at the moment, not a lei. The best thing they can do is go to the police and hand in the paintings. Eugen gets up and starts to pack away the paintings. “Forget it. The Russians will have them,” he says.
Before they leave, Mariana Dragu manages to take a photo of the back of the Matisse.
At home, Dragu googles the paintings. She finds them straight away in an article about the Kunsthal robbery. She feels weak at the knees. When she sees the security footage on YouTube, she realizes that the works she examined earlier that day had been hanging in a museum less than a month previously. She reads in the coverage of the theft that Albanian and Irish gangs are suspected of being involved. She becomes frightened.
She sends a text message to a friend who works at
“I saw something I might wish I hadn’t. Help.”
On Monday she’s in his office. Mariana Dragu is the person who gets the ball rolling. In the months that follow, sometimes she wakes up with a jolt in the night. She could have saved the paintings. If only she’d said she knew a buyer, that they should leave the paintings with her and she’d see they got their money.
This is the only thing Dinescu will say about the case, “If only I’d saved them.” He denies knowing that the paintings were stolen, yet he’s the first person the Romanian investigation team look into.
The Dutch police been close twice without knowing it. On 4th November, three weeks after the theft, they’d raided Natasha’s house in the middle of the night. This is the house where the paintings were hidden after the robbery, but the police were only there to investigate illegal prostitution. Adrian was present at the time too. Less than two weeks later, on 16th November, the police take down his details again. They approach him because he’s standing on the street with his laptop, downloading films via an unprotected wifi signal.
Now it is January 2013. The winter has well and truly begun in Carcaliu. The temperature no longer rises above freezing and the village is covered in mist on an almost daily basis. Radu, Eugen and Alexandru have all returned to Romania with their girlfriends. Only Adrian has remained in the Netherlands.
It is two and a half months since the robbery was committed and Radu slowly begins to realize that the paintings – despite being worth millions – might not be so easy to sell. He has heard nothing more from Petre and an extensive trawl through Belgium hasn’t given any leads. On Facebook he expresses his worry to Eugen that they might be lumbered with the paintings forever.
At that moment, the paintings are stored in the house of Radu’s aunt, Marfa Marcu. Immediately after his return to Carcaliu, Radu knocked on the door of the house on the only tarmacked road in the village. Would she look after some stuff for him? His aunt hadn’t asked what was in the black suitcase and had no objections. “Just put it next to the clothes rail,” she’d said.
During those weeks, the young men cautiously ask more and more friends and acquaintances whether they know anyone who might be interested. Alexandru’s mother works for a large wine importer in Măcin, a company with many foreign contacts. Might her boss, Serghei Cozma be interested? Through the grapevine they let it be known that they have a Picasso and a Matisse to sell. Insurance value of the two pieces: 8.3 million euros. Asking price: 50,000 euros.
Serghei Cozma says that he is not interested.
The Romanian police have been on the trail of the art thieves for one and a half months, thanks to the valuer’s tip-off. Early January there’s something of a breakthrough: the suspects identities become known. They have been traced through telephone records. Art dealer Dinescu turned out to have had a lot of contact with Petre in the days leading up to the evaluation. His phone records give them Radu and Eugen’s numbers.
There was mainly a lot of contact on 2nd November, the day that Radu and Eugen first visited Petre in his apartment in Bucharest. The detectives get their names from the reception of the apartment building where Radu and Eugen had to sign in. Footage from security cameras in the block gives them their faces too.
The images are sent to the Netherlands. The two young men show up on the Kunsthal’s security footage under analysis from the weeks leading up to the theft. Things move fast from then on. The investigating team gets permission to tap the suspects’ telephones and Facebook is asked to preserve and provide any data.
When Radu and Alexandru discuss possible buyers over the phone, the police listen in. They also listen in on their failed attempt to persuade Serghei Cozma, Măcin’s wine importer, to buy the paintings. When the investigators approach him, Cozma agrees to work with them.
Radu, Eugen and Alexandru get more and more nervous. They can’t even sell the paintings at a bargain basement price. What if they get stuck with the loot? They become extremely careful in their communications, never mentioning the paintings directly.
They are suspicious when Serghei Cozma suddenly tells them he is interested in the paintings after all. He wants to make an appointment to look over the paintings with an art expect before buying them.
They agree nevertheless: Sunday 20th January is when the meeting will take place.
The art expert is a Romanian undercover cop. He’s been given a crash course in art research the week before the operation so that he’ll be somewhat credible. The plan is to arrest the men as soon as the Matisse and the Picasso are on the table. They hope to get hold of the rest of the canvasses later, at least they’ll have something.
This is when things go wrong. That Saturday afternoon, the day before the undercover op, Radu gets a phone call from Petre. He’s heard – probably from the concierge at the apartment complex – that the police are investigating him. He is afraid their conversations are being tapped.
The Romanian police are indeed listening along and hear Radu panic. “What should we do?” he asks Petre. “Should we burn them?”
The agents know that their undercover operation has failed and that there’s a serious chance the works will be destroyed. A few hours later, Radu, Eugen and Alexandru are arrested. Without the paintings.
How can she protect her son? Directly after Radu’s arrest, the police turned her house upside down. They didn’t find anything, but it would only be a matter of time before the paintings are found in her sister’s house, in the bedroom where they’ve been stored for the past couple of months.
Olga was on her own. Her husband was doing time for assault and now she’d lost her son Radu too. The only person she could talk to at the time was Natasha, Radu’s girlfriend, who’d also returned from the Netherlands by then.
Olga tells Natasha that the stolen paintings are at her sister’s house and that she’s afraid the police will find them. Two days after the arrest, on the day that the breakthrough in the case becomes major news in Romania and the Netherlands, they drive in Olga’s Land Rover to her sister, Marfa Marcu’s house on the only tarmacked road in Carcaliu. Her sister notices her nervous Olga is. She gives her the black trolley suitcase with the brand name Hawar.
Radu’s mother and girlfriend bury the suitcase – his name still on it – in the garden of the derelict house opposite Natasha’s childhood home, in one of the narrowest, most downtrodden streets in Carcaliu.
The day after Olga and Natasha bury the paintings, Olga begins to have her doubts. Is it a safe place? What’s more, Natasha tells her she’ll be returning to the Netherlands that week, so if she wants to move the paintings again with her, she’ll have to be quick.
On the evening of 24th January 2013, five days after the arrests, Olga and Natasha set off again around 21:00. There’s a full moon but enough mist to conceal their actions. They dig up the case in the garden of the derelict house and take out the paintings. The suitcase goes back into the ground and they wrap the paintings in plastic in Olga’s house. It will protect them from moisture. Three paintings in one package, four in the other.
Afterwards they go to the small graveyard opposite Olga’s house. After a few mild days the weather has turned cold, the temperature hovers around freezing. They open the old wooden gate and walk to the back part of the graveyard. Here they bury the paintings again.
The small graveyard near Olga’s house where she buried the paintings a second time. Photo Daniel Mihailescu / AFP
The police stay on the case over the weeks that follow. More than a hundred house searches are conducted in the village. Olga’s sister’s house is completely ransacked. “Why?” Marfa Marcu sobs to a local journalist who has come to take a look. “What did they think they’d find here? There isn’t anything. No paintings, no pictures. I don’t hide that kind of thing.” Olga’s house is searched again too. She grows even more afraid.
17th February 2013, four months after the Kunsthal robbery. Olga has no one to talk to but she’s made a decision.
Olga stands in front of the heating stove in the bathroom. A short while ago she lit the fire then stepped out into the biting cold, making her way to the small graveyard opposite her house where, in the dead of night, she dug up the artworks and brought them back inside.
Picasso, Gauguin, Matisse, Monet, Meijer de Haan and Freud. On television they are talking about a loot worth hundreds of millions of euros. The amount is not important to her. The pictures are evidence against her son and destroying the evidence seems like the only way she can help him.
The artworks go up like tindersticks.
10th August 2013. They have just been led into the courtroom in Bucharest, handcuffed together. Eugen and Alexandru stare ahead. Olga is emotional and gets a hug from her lawyer. Radu talks extensively to his lawyer, waving his arms a lot. When the judge orders everyone to stand, he turns to his mother for a moment, two benches behind him and gives her an encouraging nod. Olga has been detained for five months at this point, she was arrested on 8th March.
Petre is notably absent. He was arrested ten days after Radu, Eugen and Alexandru but has been released pending trial. To the judge’s anger he has decided not to attend today. He has opted for canoe training instead, having taken up his old sport again.
Adrian, who committed the burglary together with Radu is still on the run.
Natasha, Radu’s girlfriend, was arrested in the Netherlands in March and will have to answer to a Dutch judge later.
Catalin Dancu, lawyer of Radu and his mother Olga, talks to the media after the first hearing in the trial in Bucharest August 13, 2013. Photo Bogdan Cristel / REUTERS
It is busy in the small courtroom. Before the start of the trial of the Kunsthal suspects, a dozen journalists flew in from the Netherlands. The case is being handled in Romania, in March the Netherlands decided not to request extradition.
The international new agencies and dozens of Romanian journalists are also attending the court case. In their live reports on the steps of the court building, reporters are still talking about paintings worth hundreds of millions of euros, even though it has long been clear that the insurance value is 18.1 million euros. In early February, an insurance syndicate at Lloyd’s in London paid out this amount to the Triton Foundation.
There is much speculation in the media as to whether the paintings were really burned or not. The thing is, before the start of the court case, Olga withdrew her statement. She did not burn the paintings but made the statement under pressure from the Romanian police, she says.
The suggestion that the artworks weren’t burned is being propagated by the two star lawyers appointed to the defense, Catalin Dancu and Maria Vasii. They have both handled several high-profile cases in the past and Dancu in particular is a welcome guest on tv talk shows. They have taken on the case for free; some cases pay for themselves.
The Romanian detectives managed to recover some of the ashes from Olga’s stove and the rubbish dump. In early March, the remains were put in three large old water bottles and given to experts from the Romanian National History Museum for investigation. In July, analysis of paint residue, canvas remains and tacks found in the ashes showed that at least three to four canvasses had been burned in Olga’s stove.
This doesn’t mean that the other paintings are likely to turn up. The scientists cannot prove it but assume that these artworks were destroyed too. The three other works (the Picasso and the Monets) were produced on board and paper, which wouldn’t leave any traces if burned. In any case, it is probable that the Monets were irreparably damaged early on because of the fragile nature of pastel drawings. Pastels have to be transported flat otherwise the chalk rubs off the paper.
However, the researchers will never be able to say with one hundred percent certainty that in the night of 17th February, the seven stolen artworks from the Kunsthal were burned in Olga’s stove.
The lawyers are trying to make use of this doubt. One of the things the suspects are charged with is “theft with major consequences”. If the judge thinks that the paintings weren’t destroyed, there can be no question of “major consequences”.
The suspects stand to get prison sentences of between seven and twenty years. The case is expected to run for a few more months.