Thief's mum admits to torching paintings to destroy evidence

Catalin Dancu, lawyer of Olga Dogaru and her son Radu who are indicted in the case of seven paintings stolen last year in October from Rotterdam's Kunsthal museum, speaks to the media at Bucharest's main court July 22, 2013.

BUCHAREST - Experts investigating the theft of seven masterpieces said Thursday they had found the burned remains of at least three oil paintings at the Romanian home of the chief suspect's mother.

Olga Dogaru admitted torching the stolen artworks, including two Monets and a Picasso, to destroy evidence against her son.

Prosecutors say the seven paintings were worth 18 million euros ($24 million), although experts have put their collective value at over 100 million euros.

She later retracted her statement, but Romanian art experts say they have discovered traces of three or four paintings in ashes taken from a wood-burning stove in her home.

Ernest Oberlaender-Tarnoveanu, head of Romania's National History Museum which analysed the ashes, said he could not be sure the paintings were those swiped from Rotterdam's Kunsthal museum last October.

"The number and the type of nails we found (in the ashes) indicate that we have at least three paintings there. There are also tacks that could belong to a fourth one," he told a press conference.

"We found remains of burned oil paintings, but whether they are the ones that were stolen is a separate question, to be determined by prosecutors and judges." Olga Dogaru, her son Radu and four other Romanians go on trial on Tuesday in Bucharest over the audacious heist, which has been called the "theft of the century".

It took the thieves just a pair of pliers and less than three minutes and to break into the museum and snatch the masterpieces, according to the indictment.

Four of the stolen canvases were oil paintings, while the other three - including Monet's "Waterloo Bridge" and Picasso's "TĂȘte d'Arlequin" - would be impossible to identify if burned as they were either pastel or coloured ink on paper, Oberlaender-Tarnoveanu said.