The Romanian Connection: The Kunsthal Rotterdam Heist

Photo: EPA via The Telegraph

PART I: THE HEIST

At 3:20 a.m. on October 16, 2012, the Trigion Security control center dispatched two guards to investigate an alarm trip at the Kunsthal in Rotterdam’s Museumpark. While Trigion supplied onsite guards for the art museum’s visiting hours, after closing, the museum made do with visits by roving security patrols.

By the time the guards arrived, the Rotterdam police were on the scene. They’d walked the perimeter but hadn’t seen anything. The guards entered and found that the alarm belonged to a rear fire exit. When they turned on the lights, they noticed several empty spots on the display partitions near the door.

The Kunsthal—a striking Modernist pavilion designed by rock-star Dutch architect Rem Koolhass, opened in 1992—is a museum without a collection. It hosts traveling exhibitions and displays works lent by collectors and other institutions. The exhibit in the Kunsthal had opened only nine days before. The guards knew there were lots of possible reasons for paintings to be off-display, only one of which was worth getting spun up about. Instead of reporting a theft, they waited for someone in the museum administration to come look things over.

By 5:15 a.m., everyone knew there was a good reason to get spun up: the Kunsthal had been robbed.

The new exhibit wasn’t a run-of-the-mill retrospective of some obscure artist. “Avant-Gardes” featured 150 works by masters of Modern and contemporary art owned by the Triton Foundation, which had never before allowed so many of its paintings to be exhibited together. By the time Emily Ansenk, the museum director, addressed the news media that evening, she had a list of the seven artnapping victims:

Waterloo Bridge by Claude Money, 1901
  • Two by Claude Monet (Charing Cross Bridge, London, 1901, and Waterloo Bridge, London, 1901)
  • A Paul Gauguin (Femme devant une fenetre ouverte, 1898)
  • A Pablo Picasso (Tete d’Arlequin, 1971)
  • An Henri Matisse (La Liseuse en Blanc et Jaune, 1919)
  • A Lucian Freud (Woman with Eyes Closed, 2002)
  • A Meyer de Haan (Autoportrait, 1890)

But the word got out long before Ansenk faced the press. News of the burglary hit Dutch radio at 7:18 a.m.; by afternoon, it was an international story. The hyperventilating began immediately.

The Daily Telegraph said, “Sources described the operation, in the early hours of Tuesday, as ‘professional,’ ‘highly organized,’ and ‘carried out with military precision.’ ”

Jop Ubbens, the chairman of Christie’s Amsterdam, said, “It is either a robbery to order for a wealthy individual’s secret collection, or it is for ransom. … This is not an opportunist robbery, it is the work of someone who planned and put a lot of thought into it.”

USA Today: “…an expert who tracks stolen art said the robbers clearly knew what they were after.”

The Daily Mail: “…one of the biggest art heists in history … Chris Marinello, director of the Art Loss Register, which tracks stolen artworks, said the smooth nature of the theft suggested the gang must have had inside information.”

Scotland Yard alum Charlie Hill, billed the “World’s Greatest Art Detective,” said to the Association for Research into Crimes against Art, “This theft was particularly well organized … the thieves were apparently not opportunists such as the two with a ladder at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam [link added].”

News coverage focused on the marquee artist's names (there wasn’t much mention of Meyer de Haan) and estimates of the total haul’s value, which ranged from Art Loss Register’s €50-100 million to “hundreds of millions of euros” in the Huffington Post to €310 million in the Independent.

Willem van Hassel (L) and Emily Ansenk (R) in a press conference about the stolen art pieces. Photo: EPA/Robin Utrecht

The Kunsthal initially refused to place a value on the loss to avoid giving the thieves a starting point for ransom. However, on the morning of October 17, Willem van Hassel, chairman of the Kunsthal board, provided Rotterdam police with a list of the stolen artworks and their insured value: €18.1 million. He told them it was “possible” their market value might be several times that. The Telegraph’s veteran art reporter Colin Gleadell thought that might even be too high. Several of the stolen works were small drawings or pastels—not the oils that set the auction houses alight—meaning the total value might have been as low as €14.6 million.

The museum swapped in other paintings from the Triton Collection and opened on October 17 with no empty places on the walls. There were reportedly more reporters in the gallery than visitors.

Rotterdam police assigned 25 officers to the case. Their criminalists quickly found signs of forced entry on the fire door and some footprints and fingerprints. They canvassed the neighborhood and combed through CCTV footage of the gallery (the cameras were on, but nobody was watching them that night). On October 19, they showed the CCTV video on Opsporing Verzocht, a Dutch version of Crimewatch or America’s Most Wanted. Police got over a hundred tips, but none of them panned out.

The investigation went nowhere over the next several weeks. Without any other good choices, the police started combing through the museum’s security camera footage, looking for anyone acting suspiciously. Rumors about Irish Traveler and Albanian gangs seeped into the press. Art-crime experts pointed out that in most art thefts, the loot usually either surfaces right away or disappears for years—or, sometimes, forever.

Who looted the Kunsthal?

PART II: THE CATCH

Romanian Mihai Alexandru Bitu (L) and Eugen Darie (R); AFP Photo / Daniel Mihailescu

When the EU took Romania and Bulgaria into its fold in 2007, over two million Romanians flocked to the western and northern EU nations seeking better futures for themselves and their families. Along with them, some Romanian criminals headed west seeking better targets.

Mihai Alexandru Bitu was one of the latter. He and his girlfriend, Stefania, moved from a poverty-stricken district in southeastern Romania to Rotterdam in June 2012. In the next few weeks, their friends Radu Dogaru, Eugen Darie, and Adrian Procop followed with their girlfriends.

None of them were angels, but Dogaru was a particularly hard case—a petty thief and burglar descended from a family of thieves of the type the Romanians call interlopi. One of his neighbors told the New York Times, “When he is here, we have trouble. When he goes, everything is calm.”

Once settled in the Netherlands, Stefania and Natasha, Dogaru’s girlfriend, turned tricks while the men scraped by burglarizing houses. But they quickly learned that even though crime paid better in the West than back home in Carcaliu, the cost of living was a lot higher. So on October 6, Dogaru and Darie started looking for more lucrative targets. How about museums? they thought. Art’s expensive. They searched for art museums on their car’s GPS and found the Kunsthal Rotterdam.

Between October 7–11, Dogaru, Darie, and Procop checked out the Kunsthal at various times to look at the security and traffic. They bought tickets to case the exhibition. Darie’s girlfriend tagged along to give them cover. They discovered there was no guard in the museum at night. Dogaru decided the fire door would be easy to open.

Dogaru visited by himself on the 11th to rehearse the burglary. He picked paintings that hung near the fire door and were small enough to carry easily. The artists’ names meant nothing to him.

The three wannabe art thieves put on black hoodies and moved on the Kunsthal early in the cloudy morning of October 16. They hit the fire-exit door hard to disengage the electronic lock, then Dogaru jimmied the mechanical latch. The trio drove off with the seven artworks less than three minutes later.

Then, they learned a hard truth: it’s easier to steal art than to sell it.

WOMAN WITH EYES CLOSED by Lucian Freud, 2002
Later that morning, Dogaru and Darie drove to Brussels in Bitu’s car to meet one of Dogaru’s shady contacts: George Moise, or “George the Thief.” They showed him Freud’s Woman with Eyes Closed and asked George if he could help fence it and the others. He couldn’t, so they returned to Rotterdam and went to sleep.

When they woke up on the 17th, they discovered their little burglary had become international news.

Darie decided to leave the Netherlands pronto to dodge the incoming legal heat. He packed up his car, his girlfriend Andreea, and the paintings, then took off for home. Dogaru flew to Bucharest on October 21. The rest of the crew returned to Romania over the next few days.

Back in Carcaliu, Dogaru contacted Petre Condrat, a male model who had connections in what passes for the upper crust in that benighted slice of rural Romania. He knew people who had money—maybe they’d like a slightly-used painting? Condrat asked around and mostly got nu for an answer.

One of the people Condrat buttonholed was Constantin Dinescu, a sometime art dealer. Dinescu arranged an early November meeting between Dogaru, Darie, and Mariana Dragu, a curator for the Romanian National Museum of Art. She saw the paintings, went home to research their value via Google, and discovered where they’d come from. She took her story to DIICOT, the Romanian organized-crime squad, on November 19. They opened an investigation.

After hitting a series of dead ends through the end of the year, Dogaru’s crew started getting the idea that they may not be able to sell the paintings for any price. Increasingly nervous, they parked the artworks with Dogaru’s mother, Olga, for safekeeping.

Meanwhile, the Rotterdam police investigation was comatose: no new leads, waning public interest, abuse from the press. Then, in January 2013, the Romanian cops sent them photos of two young men. Had these knuckleheads been around the Kunsthal? Yes, indeed; CCTV showed Dogaru and Darie had been there several times.

DIICOT bugged Dogaru’s and Darie’s phones and set up a sting to draw the men and paintings into a fake deal. The trap was supposed to slam shut on January 20; however, someone tipped off the two thieves the day before. They panicked. When the police overheard the men talk about burning the paintings, DIICOT rolled up Dogaru, Darie, Bitu, and Procop on January 19.

But where were the paintings? Olga claimed she’d burned them to protect her son.

Olga Dogaru (Reuters)

Or maybe she didn’t; her story changed with the weather. She also claimed she gave them to a Ukrainian man, Vladimir Vladimirenko, who arrived at her house in a big, black car. Her son Radu said she didn’t burn the paintings. On the other hand, experts from the Romanian National History Museum said they found paint fragments and copper nails of the right vintage in Olga’s furnace. They couldn’t agree on how many paintings had been burned.

Dogaru tried to bargain with Dutch prosecutors, offering to give back the paintings if he and his crew could be tried in the Netherlands (Romanian justice and jails not having earned the best reputation). But he said he could give back only five of the seven, though he never explained why. The Dutch took a pass. In a total Hail Mary play, Dogaru threatened to sue the Kunsthal for negligence because the place was too easy to break into.

None of it got the gang off the hook. Romanian courts convicted Radu Dogaru and Eugen Darie of theft in February 2014. Dogaru got six years in prison; Darie pulled five years and four months. That July, Adrian Procop was convicted of theft (four years and eight months), and Olga Dogaru was convicted of transporting and hiding stolen property (two years). The court also dropped an €18 million fine on the four of them to repay the Kunsthal’s insurers. Alexandru Bitu got off, and Petre Condrat was still “at large.”

The artworks are still missing today. If you happen to run across them, please let the Dutch know. They’ll be ever so grateful.

 


Lance Charnes is an emergency manager and former Air Force intelligence officer. His new art-crime novel Stealing Ghosts involves a disgraced gallerist stealing a long-lost painting from a museum… for the best of reasons, of course. His Facebook author page features spies, art crime and archaeology, among other things.

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