Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Masterpiece Theater of the Absurd

Last year, there was a majorly major art heist in Rotterdam, with works by Picasso, Money, Matisse, et al., valued in the tens of millions of dollars, spirited away, allegedly by a gang of Romanian no-good-niks. (Or whatever the Romanian word for no-good-niks is. My Romanian is pretty much limited to “duce la dracu”, which means “go to hell.”)

Radu Dogaru was prime on the theft and, last winter, while:

…sheltering with a computer at his mother’s house in this remote Romanian village [Cracaliu], set out the terms for a deal that had eluded him for months but that now suddenly seemed tantalizingly close. (Source: NY Times.)

Dogaru did so via Facebook, letting a fellow gang member know that he had someone lined up, and:

…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.

Guess Dogaru and his pals didn’t realize that, given that you can’t exactly go to Sotheby’s with stolen paintings, the key to a successful art heist is having a buyer lined up in advance. Someone who just wants the paintings for private viewing, and who won’t blab that they’ve got them. Or try to sell them through Sotheby’s.

But absent a buyer, Picasso’s “Harlequin Head,” and Monet’s “Waterloo Bridge,” and Matisse’s “Reading Girl in White an Yellow,” were just “dogs.”

What Dogaru didn’t know was that his potential buyer was working with the Romanian prosecutor’s office, and that Dogaru was going to be nabbed when he showed up with the art.

But corruption being corruption, someone tipped Dogaru off.

And now the art world is in a swirl trying to figure out what happened to the paintings.

At one point, Dogaru’s mother claimed that the paintings were burned.

Mommy Dearest then changed her tune and suggested that the paintings may have been “spirited away by a tall mystery man in a fancy black car.”

Sonny-boy Dogaru, meanwhile, has admitted that he stole the paintings, but hasn’t given up their whereabouts because he’s scared to, or doesn’t know what became or them, or whatever.

Dogaru gets something of a mixed review in his home town.

His grandmother claims that her grandson was a good boy who “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.

Meanwhile, Romania being Romania, Carcaliu is not just any old plain vanilla Romanian village. It’s populated by an eccentric Russian Orthodox schismatic group, the Old Believers, who pretty much don’t cotton to outsiders.

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.

The big secret being what happened to all those works of art.

Were they buried in a cemetery?

Burned “in a stove used to heat water for the bathroom and a sauna”, a stove that “is barely a foot wide and seems far too small to contain what would have been a bulky bundle of canvas and wood.”

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.

Dogaru’s mother sounds like a first class pip. So does her son.

He’s not only an (inept) art thief, but when he first landed in Rotterdam, he pimped out his 18 year old Romanian girlfriend.

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 what’s $2,655 a week when you can make big money in the art world?

Should be easy-peasy. After all, Dogaru’s specialty seemed to have been fencing luxury watches. Expensive watches? Expensive art works? What’s the big diff, especially if you tune out the “one of a kind” nature of the art works.

Dogaru’s involvement in the theft came to (ultra)violet light when a prospective buyer brought in an expert, who decided that the paintings she examined were authentic. And called the police.

While Dogaru’s in prison awaiting trial, he’s still trying to parlay the paintings – which may or may not be burnt – into getting a better deal for himself.

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.

No dice on that one.

Personally, I’m just as happy that Dogaru will be rotting I a nasty Romania jail rather than enjoying comfy digs in the Netherlands. And I hope  that his mother ends up keeping him company in the hoosegow, too.

Too bad this gang who couldn’t steal art straight didn’t get busted before they turned so many masterpieces to ashes.

But all the odd-ball threads of this story… Old Believers, pimped out girlfriends, burning the evidence, Romania period…

This theater of the absurd will make for some made-for-TV movie.

And Radu and Olga Dogaru can both duce la dracu.

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