The trail of stolen paint­ings has gone cold in a Ro­ma­nian vil­lage

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - SUNDAY LIFE - By AN­DREW HIG­GINS

On a snowy day in Jan­uary, Radu Dog­aru, shel­ter­ing with a com­puter at his mother’s house in this re­mote Ro­ma­nian vil­lage, set out the terms for a deal that had eluded him for months but that now seemed tan­ta­liz­ingly close. Com­mu­ni­cat­ing on Face­book with a fel­low mem­ber of a gang that, three months ear­lier in Rot­ter­dam, had pulled off the big­gest art theft in decades, Mr. Dog­aru said he wanted to “fin­ish the show” and work out a sale of the stolen paint­ings to a wealthy lo­cal wine pro­ducer who had sent word that he was keen to buy.

The paint­ings, by Pi­casso, Monet, Matisse and other mod­ern masters, were worth tens of mil­lions of dollars. But Mr. Dog­aru, des­per­ate to un­load the can­vasses, told his ac­com­plice, Mi­hai Alexan­dru Bitu, that the ea­ger buyer could have “the dogs” for 400,000 euro, about $531,000, and agreed to take the paint­ings to a meet­ing the next day to com­plete the sale.

“What do you think about this buyer, so hot sud­denly?” asked Mr. Dog­aru, ac­cord­ing to a record of the ex­change. “Yes­ter­day he was not in­ter­ested, and now he is hit­ting the phones.”

What he did not re­al­ize, though, was that the buyer, Serghei Cosma, was co­op­er­at­ing with the Ro­ma­nian prose­cu­tor’s of­fice and planned to at­tend the meet­ing with an agent mas­querad­ing as an art ex­pert. The whole thing was an elab­o­rate sting op­er­a­tion.

“We were about to catch them red-handed,” said Raluca Botea, the chief prose­cu­tor in a spe­cial Ro­ma­nian unit.

Just a few hours later, how­ever, the op­er­a­tion fell apart, when Mr. Dog­aru re­ceived a warn­ing that the po­lice were tap­ping his cell­phone. Now, more than six months on, the fate of the paint­ings is still un­known, as law en­force­ment au­thor­i­ties in Ro­ma­nia and the

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