By ANDREW HIGGINS
Published: July 22, 2013
BUCHAREST, Romania — Olga Dogaru, the Romanian woman who told investigators that she had incinerated seven works of art by Matisse, Picasso and other modern masters in an effort to protect her son, denied in court on Monday that she had burned the works.
Standing alongside her son, Radu, 29, who has admitted stealing the paintings in October from the Kunsthal museum in Rotterdam, Mrs. Dogaru, 50, told a panel of three judges that her earlier account of destroying the works in a stove at her house in the tiny village of Carcaliu was untrue. “I did not burn them,” she said in a soft voice.
Alarm swept the art world last week when it appeared that the theft in the Netherlands had ended with a spasm of wanton destruction in a remote corner of Romania. The head of Romania’s National History Museum, Ernest Oberlander-Tarnoveanu, described the supposed burning as a “barbarian crime against humanity.”
The artworks — paintings and drawings signed by Picasso, Matisse, Monet, Gauguin, Lucian Freud and Meyer de Haan — were stolen from the Kunsthal in a brazen nighttime robbery led, according to prosecutors, by Mrs. Dogaru’s son, who was arrested in Romania in January. Mrs. Dogaru told investigators in May that months earlier, in February, she had shoved the stolen artworks into a stove used to heat a sauna at her family home and then set them alight, in a desperate attempt to destroy evidence and save her son from going to jail. News of her account circulated widely last week, along with reports that forensic scientists had found trace evidence to support it.
In the hearing on Monday, though, she said she had made it all up. “I believed that what I said before was the best thing at the moment, that this was the right thing to do,” Mrs. Dogaru said in court, dressed in a blue T-shirt and baggy white pants. When she was asked what had become of the stolen art, she stuttered and then denied that any burning of artwork had occurred.
The purpose of the hearing on Monday was to review a defense lawyer’s request that Mrs. Dogaru, who was arrested in March, and her son be released from detention while awaiting the start of their trial, scheduled for next month. A lawyer for another defendant in the case, Eugen Darie, also requested the release of her client. Prosecutors opposed the requests.
Mrs. Dogaru’s son, who wore a tight black T-shirt and bluejeans, stood silently throughout the proceedings, flexing his biceps as defense lawyers and a state prosecutor argued.
Radu Catalin Dancu, Mrs. Dogaru’s lawyer, said after the hearing that his client had invented the story about burning the artworks “to protect her son and under pressure from prosecutors.” He said it was unclear what had become of the stolen works. “We might never find out what happened to the paintings,” he said.
The most serious charge against Mrs. Dogaru arose from her earlier claim to have destroyed the artworks, which are valued at tens of millions of dollars. Under Romanian law, the crime of “destruction with very serious consequences,” one of three charges against Mrs. Dogaru, carries a sentence of 3 to 10 years — far longer than the punishment for her two other alleged crimes, “supporting a criminal group” and “assisting criminals.”
Relatives and friends in the village of Carcaliu have long insisted that Mrs. Dogaru invented the incineration story, but fears that it might be true were bolstered last week when the National History Museum in Bucharest announced that forensic scientists had found ash material consistent with burned paintings, including copper tacks and pigments used by artists of the relevant periods.
Mr. Dancu, the lawyer, challenged the findings and said he had not seen a final report by the forensic scientists. He added that he wanted the ash to be sent to the Louvre in Paris for further analysis by experts with better equipment and more experience in artwork. Of his client’s earlier story, he said bluntly: “She was lying. What she said before was 100 percent untrue.”