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Art burn? Ashes show apparent traces of stolen masterpieces by Matisse, Picasso and Monet
And now the museum staff have found exactly what forensic experts say they were seeking — materials such as canvas, wood, staples and paints that indicate the ashes were the remains of artworks.
The next step would be to compare them to what is known about the missing paintings, which given their quality and status would be well-documented in photographs and condition reports.
“If one finds general similarities between the stolen works and the burned [remains], then one could test the elemental — and possibly chemical — composition of the burned ‘works’ to determine if they could be consistent with the stolen works,” said James Martin of Orion Analytical, LLC, who has taught forensic paint analysis at the FBI Academy counter-terrorism and forensic science research unit.
Art market experts said the Rotterdam thieves may have discovered what many art thieves have before them — that easily identifiable paintings by famous artists are extremely difficult to sell at anything like their auction value.
“Criminals who are successful in their usual endeavors are often undone by a foray into art theft,” said Robert Korzinek, a fine art underwriter at insurer Hiscox. “They steal these works of art … and then they have the problem that they can’t dispose of them.”
That means many works suffer ignominious fates. Some are lost forever. Others turn up after years of being buried or stashed in storage. Edvard Munch’s “The Scream,” stolen from an Oslo museum in 2004, was recovered in 2006, water damaged and torn. Police have never offered details on the painting’s whereabouts during those two years.
Chris Marinello of the Art Loss Register, which specializes in tracking down stolen artworks, said that if Olga Dogaru is telling the truth, “this isn’t the first time the mothers of art thieves have come to the rescue of their son.”
One famous 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 destroying dozens of the works after police began investigating her son, cutting up paintings, stuffing the remnants down her garbage disposal and throwing valuable jewels and other antiquities into a canal.
She was arrested after some of them resurfaced. “Old Masters were washing up on the bank,” Mr. Marinello said.
More than 100 works were recovered from the mud and restored, but much of what Breitwieser stole was lost forever.
“If this terrible news is true, then the last trace of hope that the art works would return is definitively gone,” she said. “It would be a loss that touches every art lover.”
Perhaps the only positive note is that, if Ms. Dogaru hoped to destroy the evidence, she likely failed.
“Almost everything nowadays leaves a trace,” said Mr. Marinello.
By Mangosuthu Buthelezi
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