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Thieves Stole—And Maybe Burned—Millions of Dollars of Fine Art

Tens of millions of dollars of fine art may now be a pile of fine ash

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Monet’s 1901 impressionistic painting Waterloo Bridge was one of the works stolen and, possibly, burned. Photo: Wikipaintings

In October last year a trove of fine art treasures went missing from Rotterdam’s Kunsthal museum, including “paintings by Picasso, Matisse, Gauguin, Meyer de Haan, Lucian Freud and two by Monet,” said the Guardian.

The dawn raid at the Kunsthal museum in the Netherlands’ second largest city was described by police as a well-planned and bold operation. Security experts speculated that the thieves might have taken advantage of Rotterdam’s port – one of the largest in the world – to swiftly move the paintings abroad. While police were reluctant to put a price tag on the stolen paintings, experts said it ran into tens of millions of pounds.

But while the thieves’ thieving may have been well orchestrated, their plan for what to do with the works was not. In January, says the New York Times, three people were arrested in connection to the heist. In March, a 19-year-old woman, the girlfriend of one of the three arrested in January, was picked up as well. But despite the arrests, there was no sign of the paintings themselves. Now, says the Associated Press, investigators are worried that the mother of one of the three arrested men may have burned the art.

Dogaru told investigators she was scared for her son after he was arrested in January and buried the art in an abandoned house and then in a cemetery in the village of Caracliu. She said she later dug them up and burned them in February after police began searching the village for the stolen works.

Chiru indicated that authorities did not necessarily believe Dogaru’s account. She said it could take months for the results of the tests to be known.

As the Atlantic Wire notes, the whole affair is proof that “art theft is a futile, dead-end job.” “uyers want a legal title when they buy a painting. And since thieves can’t produce a legal title, that million-dollar painting becomes about as expensive as a sheet of toilet paper.”

(Or this could all be an elaborate ruse to make people think the paintings are gone and to get people off the thieves’ trail. In either case, it’s best to wait for the confirmation that the paintings are really dust, a process that “could take months.”)

The full list of the stolen art, via the AP: “Picasso’s 1971 Harlequin Head; Monet’s 1901 Waterloo Bridge, London and Charing Cross Bridge, London; Matisse’s 1919 Reading Girl in White and Yellow; Paul Gauguin’s 1898 Girl in Front of Open Window; Meyer de Haan’s Self-Portrait, around 1890; and Lucian Freud’s 2002 work Woman With Eyes Closed.”

More from Smithsonian.com:

After Twenty-Three Years, FBI Says It Finally Knows Who’s Responsible for the Largest Unsolved Art Heist Ever
Stolen: How the Mona Lisa Became the World’s Most Famous Painting 

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About Colin Schultz
Colin Schultz

Colin Schultz is a freelance science writer and editor based in Toronto, Canada. He blogs for Smart News and contributes to the American Geophysical Union. He has a B.Sc. in physical science and philosophy, and a M.A. in journalism.

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