BY STEVE YAHN
The possibility that seven masterpieces stolen last fall from the Kunsthal Museum in Rotterdam were burned by the mother of the reputed theft ringleader is a nightmare scenario for insurers.
First, the insurance was handled by a syndicate and that alone will take endless negotiations to sort out, said one top art insurance expert.
Second, it may take a protracted process to determine if, in fact, the masterworks were burnt by Radu Dogaru in her home in a small town in Romania. Only ashes remain for investigators and museum experts to work with.
Initially, Dogaru confessed to burning the paintings to protect her son from prosecution, according to law enforcement officials. Later, however, she recanted her testimony.
The artwork -- paintings by Picasso, Matisse, Monet, Gauguin, Lucian Freud and Meyer de Haan -- is valued at between $130 million and $150 million, "though they were insured for considerably less," said London-based Richard Nicholson, executive director in Willis's Fine Art Jewelry and Specie practice.
Nicholson and others noted this would not be the first time stolen art was destroyed by thieves or their relatives.
"I recall a similar incident in 2001, following the arrest of a prolific art thief, Stephane Breitweiser, who allegedly stole works from some 170 museums across Europe between 1995 and 2001 and kept the stolen works in the bedroom of his mother's home on the French/Swiss border," Nicholson said.
"On his arrest in November 2001, his mother destroyed dozens of Old Masters and shredded the canvasses in her garbage disposal."
In another instance, in the spring of 2010, thieves stole $134 million worth of paintings from the Musee d'Art Modern in Paris -- including works by Picasso, Braque, Leger, Matisse and Modigliani -- only to throw them into a garbage bin in a fit of panic, where they were then compacted, he said.
Even when art thieves elude law enforcement officials, there are a number of reasons why it is hard for the thieves to sell stolen art at more than a fraction of their value on the open market.
One obvious reason is that paintings are highly identifiable and unique.
"An original artwork is like a fingerprint," said Mary Pontillo, vice president at the DeWitt Stern Group.
October 1, 2013
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