BUCHAREST, Romania – In a show of solidarity with a pretentious class of foreign academics and art collectors, villagers from all over eastern Romania are joining a search for seven missing masterpieces. The paintings were stolen by a Romanian gang in October of 2012 from the Kunsthal museum in the Netherlands. The works have possibly been hidden somewhere in the region of Dobruja. They include paintings by Picasso, Monet, Matisse and other luminaries.
Radu Dogaru, a member of the gang, had been hiding the paintings in his mother’s house in Carcaliu, a tiny village in the sparsely-populated region. Aware that police were fast approaching him, Dogaru — who has since admitted to the heist — had his mother, Olga, destroy the paintings to protect him. Or so she says. Other times, she has said the works of art were taken away by a man in an expensive black car.
Whatever the truth may be, residents of the region believe the paintings might have been hidden somewhere: in a barn, inside of an abandoned car, or even under a pile of rubbish. Because Dogaru knew the police were on to him, the residents speculate he might have hastily concealed the works. Although Dogaru is in police custody, he refuses to divulge the fate of the masterpieces.
To show their support for an art world that has nothing to with their daily, difficult lives, communities in this part of Romania are coming together to try to find the missing items.
Gregoris Coteanu, a welder in the neighboring village of Măcin, has taken leave from work to scour cow pastures, overturning large stones in case one of them covers the entrance to a makeshift hiding spot.
“I feel terrible about the whole situation,” he said, hissing at an approaching heffer. “These artworks are treasures, not just for historians and museum visitors, but for a larger group: the family of humankind. That is why I have vowed to not return to my 300-euro-a-month job until we find the paintings for our academically celebrated Dutch friends who previously thought we lived in grass huts, if they gave us any thought at all.”
Ana Maria, a 67-year-old scrap-metal collector, said she and other members of the Roma community worry about the the impact the missing paintings will have on future art scholarship.
“Some people say it doesn’t matter if these paintings are ever found, that they have been studied and photographed enough,” she said as we walked toward the nearest landfill. “Yes, that is true. But something may remain to be discovered. What if there are layers of other beautiful paintings underneath the surface, versions that displeased the artist, yet might be of interest to researchers of modern art?”
“Or what if, à la The Da Vinci Code,” she said, visibly excited, “the paintings contain some secret message that will be deciphered by a yet-unborn sleuth historian, a future Robert Langdon?”
When we arrived at the landfill, Ana Maria put on a pair of green rubber boots and began kicking through fresh piles of refuse. “Dogaru could have put them in a rubbish bin,” she said, “planning to retrieve them later. But since he was arrested by the police, the paintings would have ended up here.”
Looking up to the sky, she raised her arms and said, “With God’s help, we’ll find those colorful gems, get them returned to their rightful owners so they may feel safe again in a world in which mere pigment, spread on cotton and stretched across a frame, is valued at more money than the GDP of some small nations.”
Given the historical value of the stolen works of art, staff from the Kunsthal museum seem unimpressed by the vigorous response from the Romanian villagers,
“These paintings are so dear to the world that I don’t even need to explain why. In fact, I can’t explain why,” said Maikke Dijkstra, a curator at the museum. “Yes, it’s sort of cute thow these Romanian yokels are helping us. However, they deserve no special recognition, because even a blind pig farmer with a second-grade education can appreciate the psychological penetration of Lucian Freud.”
“I hope those bumbling Romanian authorities are actually devoting every last penny of their pitiful resources to recover these priceless items,” she added. “It’s all about priorities.”
Coteanu, who left the cow pasture after a few hours because he had twisted his back, said he’s hopeful that the paintings will be found and returned to their rightful owners so he and his countrymen may again be utterly ignored by snooty scholars from Western Europe.
“If we are successful,” Coteanu said, “the aggrieved curators of the museum might have to never again deal with people like us.”
Above are paintings stolen in the 2012 heist.