Wednesday, September 11, 2013

NYT: Foundation Gets $24 Million in Insurance on Paintings Stolen From Dutch Museum

By ANDREW HIGGINS
Published: September 10, 2013

BUCHAREST, Romania — A publicity-shy Dutch foundation that owned artwork stolen from a Rotterdam museum has collected nearly $24 million in insurance and surrendered ownership rights over the missing paintings, defense lawyers said Tuesday during the trial of the confessed thief and his mother, indicating that it has itself given up on recovering intact the works by Picasso, Monet, Matisse and other modern masters.

The trial of Radu Dogaru, the ringleader of the gang that stole the artwork, his mother, Olga, and three other defendants is being closely watched by the art world in the hope that it might shed light on whether the seven paintings and drawingsstolen last October from Rotterdam’s Kunsthal museum still exist or were burned by Mr. Dogaru’s mother.

While Tuesday’s session provided no evidence either way, assertions made by defense lawyers of a secret contract transferring ownership of the artwork to a Lloyd’s of London insurance underwriter indicated that the Triton Foundation, the original owner, had decided to cut its losses.

The change of ownership claim, made before Bucharest’s District 3 Court, adds yet another layer of confusion to a saga in which the defendants have confessed to either stealing, transporting or hiding the artwork, but have repeatedly changed their stories about what happened after the pieces were moved by car from Rotterdam to Carcaliu, the remote Romanian village where Mr. Dogaru’s mother lived until her arrest in March.

The judge hearing the case, Ioan Adrian Chitoiu, voiced frustration at the fog of claims and counterclaims and demanded an end to assertions unsupported by facts.

“There have been many statements made regarding the existence or nonexistence of the paintings,” the judge said, addressing defense lawyers and their clients. “I think you should stop doing this until you have any proof.”

Tuesday’s session quickly descended into low farce when the judge exploded in anger over the casual shoes worn by one of the defense lawyers, Radu Catalin Dancu, who showed up late wearing blue suede sneakers with florescent green stripes.

Threatened with a fine of more than $1,000 for showing disrespect to the court, the lawyer protested that the shoes were high-fashion footwear that cost $265 a pair and promptly demanded a new judge. The proceedings were then suspended for nearly four hours while court officials debated what to do.

The trial resumed with the same judge on the bench and the same Adidas sneakers on Mr. Dancu’s feet.

Mr. Dancu and fellow defense lawyers argued that the case had been corrupted by procedural mistakes relating to Triton Foundation, which the official indictment names as the injured party in the robbery. The lawyers said Triton had no role to play because it had given up ownership of the stolen artwork in February.

Triton Foundation, which was formed in 2011 after the death of Willem Cordia, a millionaire Dutch investor and collector, is not registered in the Netherlands but appears in Romanian court documents as domiciled in the Netherlands Antilles, an overseas territory in the Caribbean. It is now run by a family member, Marlies Cordia-Roeloffs. The foundation has remained silent on the fate of the paintings and its own intentions.

A copy of a February contract obtained by defense lawyers and viewed by The New York Times stipulated that Triton had agreed to transfer ownership to Hiscox Europe, an insurance underwriter, in return for a payment of $24 million into a Swiss bank account.

Kylie O’Connor, a spokeswoman for Hiscox in London, confirmed that the company was the insurer for the Triton Foundation. But she declined to comment on whether the foundation had been paid for its losses. “We can’t disclose that information,” she said.

If, as defense lawyers asserted, Triton has claimed on its insurance and surrendered any future rights over the missing artwork, that would suggest it does not expect the art to be found soon, or perhaps ever.

Olga Dogaru, whose son has admitted to organizing the robbery, told investigators in February that she had burned all seven paintings in a stove used to heat a sauna at her Carcaliu home in an effort to protect her son. This account has since been buttressed by the results of a forensic analysis of ash from the stove by Romania’s National History Museum, which found fragments of canvas and nails consistent with burned paintings.

Ms. Dogaru, however, swiftly retracted her initial story, claiming in later interviews with prosecutors that a Russian-speaking man had picked up all seven paintings at night from her home.

But Mr. Dancu, the lawyer representing both Ms. Dogaru and her son, insisted Tuesday that only five paintings had ever reached Romania and that two others had been left with unidentified Russians in Belgium. He said he believed five paintings were now in Moldova, a former Soviet republic whose border lies near Carcaliu.

He provided no evidence to support this. In an interview, he said he was sure the paintings still existed, but added that Mr. Dogaru had refused to specify their whereabouts for fear of retribution.

A lawyer representing Eugen Darie, who has confessed to driving the paintings from Rotterdam to Romania, insisted that her client had transported all seven works to Romania. The lawyer, Maria Vasi, said Mr. Darie had no information on the current location of the art and that only Mr. Dogaru knew the truth.

Mr. Dogaru, dressed in a sports sweater emblazoned on the back with the brand name BOSS, his mother, Mr. Darie and a fourth defendant, Mihai Alexandru Bitu, sat mutely in a wooden pen through most of the session, watched over by a masked armed guard.

Facing up to 20 years in prison, they rose briefly to say only that they agreed with arguments made by their lawyers that they should be set free until a verdict is delivered. All four have been jailed in a Bucharest detention center.

The trial is scheduled to resume on Oct. 22.

The fifth defendant, a former male model and kayak champion, Petre Condrat, has not been jailed. He is accused of acting as an intermediary in fruitless efforts to sell the stolen art. A sixth suspect, Adrian Procop, who prosecutors say entered the museum with Mr. Dogaru in a brazen late-night raid, has not been apprehended.


Doreen Carvajal contributed reporting from Paris, and George Cailin from Bucharest.

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