Making money from stolen paintings — particularly famous ones — is not a straightforward matter, and those who try to do so fall broadly into two categories. The first, most common type is the naïf, who steals a painting but has laid few plans beyond the theft itself. He soon discovers that the painting’s notoriety has rendered it toxic, and he can’t sell it. The work of art becomes burdensome and worthless — to him at least. A more sophisticated criminal, on the other hand, recognizes that a pilfered masterpiece is a unique commodity and that in order to profit from it, he needs to think more like a derivatives trader than a pickpocket.
Billions of dollars’ worth of art goes missing every year, according to the F.B.I., but thefts of high-profile paintings are both infrequent and widely reported. While an open-market sale of works taken in such circumstances is impossible, there continues to be demand for the product, because the rightful owner — a collector, a museum, an insurer — wants the art back. That desire, however nebulous, is what is truly being traded when noteworthy artworks are exchanged on the black market. As long as there is a belief among criminals in the enduring willingness of parties from the legitimate art world to retrieve their property, a stolen painting has currency.
When a couple of men wearing hoods broke into the Kunsthal museum in Rotterdam at 3:16 a.m. on Oct. 16 last year and stole two drawings by Monet and one painting each by Gauguin, Picasso, Matisse, Lucian Freud and Jacob Meyer de Haan, it wasn’t immediately obvious which camp they fell into. There was something businesslike about the burglary itself, which took about two minutes and prompted experienced detectives to suspect an expert crew was responsible. A little more than a year after the heist, however — with the principals having confessed their guilt and the artworks most likely destroyed — we know for sure: They were knuckleheads.
In early October 2012, Radu Dogaru and Eugen Darie, two Romanians from an eastern county called Tulcea were living in the Netherlands. Along with several of their countrymen, according to a criminal indictment, they pursued a variety of hustles, including prostitution and selling stolen watches. One day, Dogaru, the supposed ringleader of this group, unaccountably decided he wanted “great, old art objects” to sell on the black market and resolved to burglarize a museum.
Dogaru and Darie began scouting their options with a stroll through Rotterdam’s museum district. As Darie would reveal when interviewed by Romanian police, the first target they considered was the Natural History Museum, but the place was full of dead animals, and they didn’t see a way to make a profit on such items. (In fact, the Natural History Museum was robbed the previous year of its rhino horns — a commodity whose black-market price in the Far East can run to around $2,000 per ounce, more than the cost of gold or cocaine.)
The Romanians’ attention turned to the Kunsthal next door — a modern, glass-fronted gallery, where a blockbuster exhibition entitled “Avant-Gardes” was about to open. The show comprised some 250 works borrowed from the Triton Collection, belonging to the Cordias, a wealthy Dutch shipping family, and included paintings by Van Gogh and Bonnard, among others. The Romanians didn’t know much about art, but they knew that works by famous artists sold for millions.
They made several visits to the Kunsthal over the next few days. Dogaru jogged through the park behind the museum a few times to check its security, and on one occasion, the men visited the Kunsthal along with Darie’s girlfriend, posing as art lovers. (The indictment states that on these visits, they placed their hands in the pockets of their sweatpants, to appear nonchalant.) The group sought out paintings on the basis of two criteria: each item had to be by a well-known artist and small enough to fit inside a knapsack.
By Oct. 12, according to Darie, the thieves were ready, but they delayed their break-in until there was an overcast night. In the early hours of Oct. 16, prosecutors say, Dogaru and a man named Adrian Procop entered the museum through an emergency door on the park side of the building.
They encountered little resistance. They used pliers to open the door, which was evidently weak. The stolen works were all displayed on the ground floor, not far from the exit, and were fixed to the walls with easily broken wires. None of the works were individually connected to an alarm system, the museum employed no night guards on site and the closed-circuit TV did not cover the northern exterior where the thieves broke in. The police, responding to an alarm that went off after the men entered the building, arrived several minutes too late.
Not since 2003, when an Austrian named Robert Mang stole Benvenuto Cellini’s “Salt Cellar” — a small sculpture that a Sotheby’s auctioneer estimated would be worth between $60 million and “nine figures” — from the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, have works of such importance been stolen with such ease. (Mang, a security-alarm specialist with no criminal record, noticed scaffolding around the museum, climbed up, broke a window and escaped with the “Salt Cellar” in less than a minute. He then hid it under his bed for two years and was arrested after a failed attempt to ransom it.)
As Fred Leeman, a Dutch curator who has worked with the Triton Collection, told me, “It struck me as shoplifting, rather than robbing a museum.”
Indeed, at a court hearing last month in which Dogaru, Darie and a third man named Mihai-Alexandru Bitu all pleaded guilty, Dogaru’s lawyer told reporters that his client was considering suing the gallery for its “negligence” in allowing itself to be breached so easily.
Certainly the thieves’ problems started in earnest only after they left the Kunsthal. According to the Romanian indictment, Dogaru decided the framed canvases were too heavy to carry to their designated meeting point. He called Darie and Bitu, who were waiting nearby with the getaway car, to make other arrangements. Then they lost phone reception. For half an hour, Dogaru and Procop wandered the museum district of Rotterdam on foot, with the stolen paintings in their bags, before finding their friends and hiding the art in the back of a small Peugot.
It was only when they had the stolen paintings in their possession that they considered the knotty question of what the works might sell for and, more important, who might buy them.
The morning after the break-in, the thieves were not the only ones trying to guess the value of the stolen art. When the news broke, journalists made several eye-catching estimations as to what the art was “worth” — by which, in general, they meant the open-market potential of the stolen work, rather than its new black-market value. (The Independent produced a stratospheric number: 250 million English pounds, or about $400 million.)
The initial lofty estimations in the media seemed harmless, but some art-recovery specialists thought them irresponsible. There is a black market for stolen artworks, and according to the head of the F.B.I.’s art-crime team, Bonnie Magness-Gardiner, their prices are inevitably a small fraction of the works’ legitimate value. Some estimates put the average at 7 to 10 percent of perceived open-market value. Criminals, presumably, read newspapers — and newspapers had drastically inflated the value of the Kunsthal’s missing works.
When Dogaru and his partners tried to sell them, though, they did not appear to have employed such rigorous math. Over the next few weeks, their prices ranged from tens of millions of euros for a single painting, when they were feeling optimistic, to 100,000 euros (or $134,000) apiece, as they became more desperate.
According to the indictment, Darie and Dogaru traveled to Brussels on Oct. 16, after the heist, to see a man known as George the Thief. They asked if he knew anybody who might be interested in some stolen paintings. After returning to Rotterdam the same day, they realized that their burglary had provoked a media frenzy and decided to travel separately to Romania. The canvases, stuffed in pillow cases, were driven by Darie.
In the ensuing months, Dogaru tried to sell at least some of the works in Romania. He did not cut a sophisticated figure: he carried the art in plastic bags and at one point showed that he was unable to spell the names of the artists. According to the indictment, Dogaru and Darie also tried to find buyers in France, Belgium, Monaco, Belarus and Russia — often through George the Thief. None of these attempts were successful. In November, however, the burglars’ advances to an art dealer in Bucharest resulted in two of the works being independently verified by Mariana Dragu, an expert from the Romanian National Art Museum. After Dragu recognized that the paintings were genuine, and therefore likely to have been stolen, she contacted the authorities, which prompted a police investigation of Dogaru and his accomplices.
The closest Dogaru came to selling any pictures came immediately before his arrest. A Romanian wine producer sent word that he was willing to buy four of the paintings. Dogaru, anxious to sell, priced them at 100,000 euros each. In fact, the wine producer was working with Romanian prosecutors, and the would-be sale was a sting operation. At the 11th hour, Dogaru was tipped off, and he canceled the meeting. In any event, Dogaru, Bitu and Darie were arrested soon afterward, in late January. Adrian Procop is still at large.
If Dogaru did not possess the requisite savoir-faire to make a sale, it was in part because the world of stolen paintings was new to him. He might have saved himself, his associates and the seven artworks a lot of trouble, had he taken a 75-minute train ride from Rotterdam to ‘s-Hertogenbosch in the south of the Netherlands, to meet an art dealer named Ron de Vries.
De Vries claims to have stolen hundreds of paintings over five decades. Now 74, he has fine white hair, large, bright blue eyes and an athletic physique. When we met in January, he wore designer clothes and a diver’s watch and looked more like a superannuated pop star than an old crook. He was arrested in 2008 for fencing several paintings that were stolen from the Frans Hals Museum in Haarlem in 2002. Last year he lost an appeal of his conviction for handling stolen goods — the only time he has been found guilty of any offense — but he is appealing the judgment, and a 40-month prison sentence, in the Netherlands’ supreme court. He has admitted, though, to trying to return the work to an insurance company for a fee.
De Vries told me he started stealing at 20, when he robbed his rich girlfriend’s father’s house in The Hague. He said he learned to rob safes soon afterward, with the help of a man he described as “the best safecracker who ever lived.” Then he became interested in art. “It’s so easy,” he said. “You are running, and you see a painting you like in someone’s house, and you throw a stone through the window, and you take the painting.”
Until recently, when computerized databases of stolen art — managed by, among others, the Carabinieri in Italy, Interpol and the Art Loss Register, a private service — became widely used, it was simple to move art around, de Vries said. If he stole a painting, he could launder its reputation by sending it to America and then flying it back to Europe, he said, where he would reintroduce it to the art market through friendly dealers. He stole only from private homes and never from a museum, he claimed, and he never took a piece worth more than around 100,000 euros. Anything more valuable, he believed, created unwelcome publicity. Indeed, when we met, before the Romanian thieves were arrested, de Vries said he was confused by the Kunsthal heist because it contravened so many of his own rules.
“Nobody breaks into a museum and steals paintings and wants to sell them,” he said. “It’s impossible.”
De Vries’s claims were grandiose, and most were unverifiable. His lawyer would not confirm any of his client’s confessions. (“Those are his words, not mine,” he said.) Several months — and additional conversations — later, de Vries himself denied his criminal past. His thinking about art crime, however, is shared by many involved in trying to recover stolen art. Apparently it is possible to steal and then sell paintings, but only if you are well connected, patient and not too greedy. Under these criteria, Dogaru’s enterprise was doomed from its inception. To take advantage of a major heist, he would have needed to be a much smarter criminal.
Dick Ellis has operated in this art-theft underworld for decades. A retired Scotland Yard detective with a stocky frame and a wry grin, Ellis spent much of his career on the Metropolitan Police’s fabled Art and Antiques Squad — which was responsible for, among other coups, the return of Edvard Munch’s “Scream,” three months after it was stolen from the National Gallery in Norway in 1994. He now works as a private detective and has been retained by the firm that insured the Kunsthal’s “Avant-Gardes” exhibition, to investigate the possibility of retrieving its stolen paintings.
Ellis told me that works with a high open-market value are often used by serious criminals as collateral. A painting doesn’t need to be sold at auction to hold value, he explained. Even if it stays forever on the black market, it can be used as a kind of promissory note in a weapons or drug deal. Career criminals also believe they can extort a ransom from insurers or use the stolen work as a bargaining chip. A prison sentence, for instance, might be reduced in some jurisdictions in exchange for a criminal’s help in retrieving a missing Monet. In effect, an unframed canvas, easier to move across borders than its equivalent in cash or drugs, acts as a high-value and extremely pretty bank note.
Ellis gave an example from his own experience. After Martin Cahill — the Irish gangster known as the General — stole 18 paintings from the Beit Collection at Russborough House in County Wicklow in 1986, the artworks led an extraordinary life. One painting was sent to Istanbul, where it was used as part of a payment for a heroin deal. Four other paintings — including a Gainsborough, a Goya and a Vermeer — were taken to Antwerp, where a diamond dealer accepted them as collateral and advanced Cahill a large sum of money, with which he tried to start an offshore bank in the Bahamas. The Antwerp paintings were eventually recovered after an undercover sting in which Charles Hill — Ellis’s colleague in the Art Squad — posed as an American buyer.
Still, the concept of art as collateral is tricky. The best chance for a painting to express a monetary value would seem to be from a ransom. But how often do insurers make payouts to criminals? Robert Korzinek, the fine-arts underwriter who insured the Kunsthal claim, says that his organization is not in the business of paying for the return of stolen art. It sometimes pays for “information leading to the return” of a painting, but the sums involved are small and distributed only with the approval of local law enforcement. The underwriter says there is a belief among criminals, however, that large payments are made regularly, and because of this, they often use paintings as part of their “complex trades.”
“All markets work on confidence,” Korzinek says. “If you have a perception that there will be value attached to that object, then you can use it as a commodity. . . . I can sit here and say we don’t pay ransoms, but people don’t believe it.”
One reason for that is a well-known case in the early 2000s when the Tate Gallery in London successfully negotiated for the return of two J. M. W. Turners that were stolen in 1994 while on loan. Having bought back the title to the paintings from the insurers, the Tate delivered a vast sum of money — around £3.5 million, or $5.6 million — to a lawyer named Edgar Liebrucks, who used the money to help secure the paintings for the museum. This payment was for “information leading to the return,” but some in the art world interpreted it as a ransom. (Korzinek calls the Turners situation a “one off.” British and German authorities approved the exchange.)
There are some in the art-recovery community, meanwhile, who have accused the Art Loss Register, a private organization that retrieves stolen artworks for a fee or a commission, of introducing cash into the black market. Most vocal among them is Chris Marinello, the former general counsel at the register, who recently left the organization to establish a competing service, in part because he disagreed with the practices of the A.L.R. “If you pay off criminals, you create a market,” he said. (Julian Radcliffe, who heads the register, rejects Marinello’s characterization. He says he condemns the practice of paying criminals and denies that his firm does so.)
There is, perhaps, one other fate for well-known stolen paintings. Charles Hill — who is now, like Ellis, a private art-recovery specialist, based in London — told me that famous artworks are occasionally stolen on commission. In fact, until the arrest of the Romanians in January, Hill believed that the heist was linked to a fugitive Irish trafficker named George (the Penguin) Mitchell. His theory was based on a likeness between the Meyer de Haan self-portrait and a published photograph of Mitchell.
Hill was wrong about the Kunsthal burglary, but isolated cases support his thinking in general. For instance, in 2008, a Brazilian named Moisés de Lima Sobrinho, who was a chef who appeared on regional TV, was arrested for masterminding the theft of a Picasso and a Candido Portinari from the Museu de Arte de São Paulo. During questioning, he told the police that the theft was commissioned by a Saudi collector.
At the end of March, I traveled to Romania at the invitation of a lawyer named Bogdan Cimbru, who had a fascinating proposal. Cimbru represented Radu Dogaru and his mother, Olga. (Cimbru has since been replaced as their lawyer.) There was some debate about whether the suspects should be processed in Romania (where they were caught) or in the Netherlands (where the crime took place). Cimbru saw an opportunity. He said the paintings would “never be seen” again unless Dogaru was tried in the Netherlands, where he thought his client could receive more leniency, rather than in Romania. But with neither the Romanian nor the Dutch authorities responding to his attempt to leverage the paintings to move the trial, and knowing of my interest in the case, he suggested I visit him in Bucharest.
We met at a Hilton hotel on an unseasonably snowy day. A tall man in his 30s with thick, dark hair, Cimbru wore a camel coat and a cashmere scarf throughout the interview, on account of a ticklish cough. He said he was surprised that nobody from the Dutch prosecutor’s office or the Cordia family had contacted him about returning the art, which was, he believed, eminently possible.
Cimbru took four photographs from a beige folder and pushed them across the table. They showed the stolen Matisse and Meyer de Haan, out of their frames, front and back. The images were yellowed and somewhat blurry, but they appeared to show what Cimbru claimed they did: “a small proof of life.” He added that if a Dutch prosecutor were to meet him, he would be shown “more than proof of life” — by which I understood him to mean that Dogaru would take him to the works themselves.
Cimbru insisted he was not asking either the Dutch or Romanian authorities for a “small sentence.” He said he simply wanted a “fair trial” in the Dutch jurisdiction. He said Dogaru would be “crucified” in Romania, whether he assisted investigators or not. In the Netherlands, Cimbru believed, he could use his client’s knowledge of the art’s whereabouts to cut a deal. There were, however, time considerations. If no deal was forthcoming before his client went on trial, he said, no more negotiations would be possible.
In April, Cimbru sent a curt email to me that said: “Negotiations ended. There will be no extradition to the Netherlands.” Dogaru’s case came before a Romanian court in May and will continue for some time, despite his recent guilty plea, in order to resolve all the charges. And as has now been widely reported, Cimbru’s tactics may have been deliberate misdirection — because the paintings may already have been destroyed. Earlier, in the winter, ashes from a stove in Olga Dogaru’s house in the village of Carcaliu had been found.
The Romanian police believed the ashes came from burned canvases, and a sample was sent to be analyzed by a laboratory at the Romanian National History Museum. Initial tests suggested that at least one painting had been destroyed; the complete results are still not available. But in July, Romanian authorities released an interview with Olga Dogaru, in which she confessed to burning all the artworks in February in order to protect her son after his arrest. (The bitter irony is that it was precisely after his arrest that the art might have become most valuable to him as a bargaining chip.) Since then she has retracted her confession.
Nonetheless, Ernest Oberlander-Tarnoveanu, the director of the Romanian National History Museum, told The New York Times in July, “Unfortunately, I have a bad feeling that a huge and horrible crime happened and the masterpieces were destroyed.” In October, a sample of the ash and other remains were sent to the University of Delft in the Netherlands, to see what else might be reasonably concluded. Nicholas Eastaugh, a leading historical-pigment expert based in London, says there’s no guarantee that tests will be able to prove if any were burned.
Throughout this period, Dogaru’s lawyers — first Cimbru and then his replacement — have made repeated but conflicting claims about the safety of the artworks. At different times, they have said that all seven pieces are in existence, that only five still remain, that some are in Moldova, that others are in Belgium. Even now, Dogaru and his mother continue to dangle the prospect of a full recovery in an attempt to influence the trial.
According to Mugur Varzariu, a Romanian journalist who maintained frequent contact with Dogaru’s family, the defense team is bluffing, because the art is gone. “You can dream about a different ending,” he told me in October. “But it’s not going to happen.”
Until recently, Dick Ellis was skeptical that anybody would be so stupid as to destroy their only remaining asset. His optimism was understandable. After all, he had a professional interest in retrieving the artworks for the underwriter. But by the fall, he thought there was a 70 percent chance that they had been burned. He also believed that the defendants’ attempts to use the paintings as a negotiating tool had been a “total charade.”
A stolen painting is a strange thing. Whatever the fate of the Kunsthal’s missing art, we will always know what Freud’s “Woman With Eyes Closed” looked like. Vestigial images of the work will remain, in books and on computer servers. But those copies can never fully communicate the tenderness of the original.
Freud’s subject was Henrietta Edwards. When she sat for him in 2002, she was young, beautiful and recently married. She also had terminal cancer. Edwards died in 2006, Freud in 2011. What remains of their relationship is contained in that painting and the flush of color in her cheeks. When a work this beautiful is stolen or destroyed, something is lost that cannot be counted in dollars. In the worlds of art and insurance, however, counting in dollars is the only way to make sense of a loss.
In April, I met someone who worked closely with the Triton Collection but refused to be named because of a privacy agreement. The family dynamic, the source told me, was complicated. Willem Cordia was an old-fashioned shipping magnate who started the Triton Collection 20 years ago with his wife, Marijke. They built it fast, with the help of various dealers and a curator. The collection was founded as a way for Willem — civic-minded but publicity-shy — to give something back to the Dutch people without attracting much attention. The idea was that the works would frequently be lent out to museums, and for many years, few people knew that the Cordias even owned the Triton Collection. (The Cordia family did not respond to my inquiries.)
Willem was a true amateur collector. Once he set his mind on acquiring a work, price mattered little to him. But his two children — Keesjan and Eliane — did not share their father’s romantic views. Keesjan, according to the source, was a hardheaded businessman, who saw art as a useful commodity. The source recalled Keesjan saying that when the family needed money, it was hanging on the wall.
When Willem died unexpectedly two years ago, at 70, Dutch obituaries noted that he was one of the last of Rotterdam’s havenbaron (“harbor barons”). It was also, the source suggested, the end of the Triton Collection as it had been conceived. Outside advisers were shunned, and important works considered for sale. In the months since the heist, two stars of the collection, a Pointillist masterpiece by Paul Signac and an Impressionist gem by Alfred Sisley, were sold in London. Both appeared in catalogs without their Triton Collection provenance.
In February, meanwhile, the Cordias’ insurers paid out in full for the Kunsthal loss: a sum of around 18.5 million euros ($24 million). This total represented an improvement on their likely auction proceeds, because the stolen pieces were insured at double their estimated value — a common arrangement when rare and irreplaceable works are lent to exhibitions.
Since the burglary, thieves in Romania, a middleman in Belgium, private detectives and underwriters in England and lawyers in three countries have tried to make hay from the Kunsthal heist. But only one party really saw a windfall. For the Cordia family, the source said, the robbery and its aftermath “was a stunning piece of business.”