She Hunted a Stolen Picasso—and Got Hoaxed
How a Romanian writer hot on the trail of seven stolen paintings found herself at the center of an elaborate prank.
When Dutch-Romanian author Mira Feticu received an anonymous letter last November with a map seeming to indicate the whereabouts of precious paintings stolen from the Kunsthal Gallery in Rotterdam in 2012, she couldn't believe her luck. Feticu had just published a novel based on the very crime, the so-called “heist of the century” in which seven paintings allegedly worth more than $70 million were stolen in a three-minute timespan in the dark of the night.
Gone were Pablo Picasso's Tete d'Arlequin or ‘Harlequin’s Head,’ two Monets and a Matisse, among others that were part of a temporary exhibit at the museum. Feticu felt personally involved in the investigation through her novel, which is based on a fictional character named Tascha—a prostitute-turned-sleuth who befriends one of the thieves and helps the Dutch police return the art to the museum. She says she felt giddy when she received the clue, imagining that she, like her invented protagonist, would be the one to bring the paintings home to Holland.
The crime itself is not such a mystery. Four Romanians were arrested and sentenced to five to six years in jail for the theft in 2014. They were apparently tipped off that the museum did not have a nightwatchman and relied instead on an electronic system, which they easily foiled. The mother of the assumed ringleader, Radu Dogaru, testified how she put the paintings in her wood stove and watched them burn to try to destroy the evidence that implicated her son.
She eventually retracted her statement when the art was reportedly listed on the black market, according to the blog Art Hostage, which follows stolen art—but investigators say they did discover remnants of nails and canvas in the wood stove in her remote Romanian home that were consistent with paintings. She served two years in prison for tampering with evidence and lying to police. None of the stolen paintings has ever been found.
“Olga Dogaru describes how she made the fire, put wood on it and burned the paintings, like she was burning a pair of slippers," Pavel Susara, a Romanian artist, told the Associated Press at the time. “She's either a repressed writer or she is describing exactly what she did.”
Feticu, who lives in the Netherlands, was in touch with the suspects in prison as she researched her novel. She says she never believed that the paintings were all destroyed, which made it especially enticing when she received what she felt were legitimate clues in the mail. She says she thought that life was quite literally imitating art. “I hoped to be able to return the paintings to mankind,” she told The Daily Beast in a series of phone and email interviews.
The letter instructed her to go deep into a forest in eastern Romania to find a beech tree under which the missing Picasso was allegedly buried in plastic. If she found that, she was led to believe, she would then be instructed where the other paintings could be found. She traveled 1,200 miles from the Netherlands with Dutch journalist Frank Westerman, found the tree, bought a shovel and started digging.
The pair carried to-scale photocopies of the missing paintings and Feticu says she was thrilled to find what looked to be the Picasso just where the mysterious instructions said it would be. “It was a carousel of emotions for me,” she said. “At first I was suspicious, then enthusiastic, then very happy, then crazy.”
Feticu and Westerman immediately took the painting to the Dutch embassy in Bucharest and proudly handed it over. She never once suspected it might be fake. But the next day, Feticu received an email from a Belgian theater group called Berlin confessing that the letter with the map and planted painting was part of an elaborate prank.
Yves Degryse and Bart Baele, the theater company directors, were working on a project called ‘True Copy’ about the famous Dutch forger Geert Jan Jansen, who was caught in 1994 after selling millions of dollars worth of forged masterpieces. He was the author of the fake Picasso buried under the tree, but they had an even better reason to choose the Kunsthal Gallery heist for their art forgery hoax.
The four jailed suspects have been fighting their conviction on appeal after claiming that the paintings they stole weren't actually originals in the first place. Catalin Dancu, a lawyer for two of the alleged robbers, told The Daily Beast that they have grounds for appeal based on allegations that the seven stolen paintings were actually fakes. Though they didn't know it at the time, he says their convictions should be overturned because they did not steal anything of value.
“The stolen paintings were never the originals—the Dutch museum was showing fakes,” he said, alluding to the fact that once examined they could not be sold on the black market because they weren't authentic. “Second, the museum is culpable because they displayed purportedly famous artwork without a proper surveillance system. If they were real, surely they would have protected them.”
Mariette Maaskant, spokeswoman for the Kunsthal, said in a statement to The Daily Beast that without the actual paintings, no one will ever be able to verify if the claims they were fake.
As for Feticu, she insists she wasn't part of the theater hoax, and she doesn't believe the stolen paintings were fake. Instead says she was devastated to learn that she had been pranked. But when she realized how many art detectives and collectors were following her journey and hoping that she had indeed found the real Picasso, she realized that her journey wasn't entirely in vain. “My disappointment did not last long because the adventure itself was great,” Feticu, who plans to write a sequel to her first novel, told The Daily Beast. “I have seen how beautiful the world is and how many people participated in our adventure, despite the stupid joke played by the theater company.”
In fact, she says if she received another clue, she'd follow it again. “If I receive another letter with instructions next week, I will check it out again because it is in my nature,” she says. “But this time, I would not believe so quickly that it is real.”