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A stolen Picasso buried in the woods? Probably not

[BUCHAREST] Six years after thieves made off with seven priceless works of art in a brazen night-time raid at a Dutch museum, an author who wrote a book about the heist said she received an anonymous tip.

The Picasso was buried under a rock in Romania, the letter said. Was it too good to be true?

Mira Feticu, a Dutch-Romanian author based in the Netherlands, said she quickly informed Dutch police about the November letter pointing to Picasso's "Tête d'Arlequin" ("Harlequin Head"). But she said she did not hear back from them.

So she and a colleague, Frank Westerman, flew to Romania to find out for themselves if the letter's claim was genuine. The two landed in Bucharest, the capital, and then drove for more than three hours to a spot near a village, Carcaliu, early Saturday to find the missing Picasso.

"It was buried in a woods not far away from the village of Carcaliu, where the thieves were from," she said in an interview. "I was told to walk 450 meters down a path and find some markings on a tree. And then a second tree nearby has a red symbol on it. There, under a rock, we found the painting, wrapped in plastic just under the soil. I cried when I saw it."

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It was the latest twist in the strange saga of the stolen paintings and drawings said to be worth 18-100 million euros(S$28.1-156.2 million) and signed by Picasso, Monet, Matisse, Gauguin, Lucian Freud and Meyer de Haan.

The Dutch news media labeled it "the theft of the century."

The recovery of even one of the paintings would be a stunning break in a long-running mystery. But what were the odds that the thieves - they were in and out of the museum in less than three minutes - or any accomplices would leave a Picasso under a rock?

The 2012 heist from a Rotterdam museum raised questions about the security of museums in Europe. Suspects were arrested in rural Romania, and four men were convicted in 2013 of the crime.

During the investigation, the mother of the ringleader, Radu Dogaru, said she had incinerated all seven paintings in a wood-burning stove at her house in the tiny village of Carcaliu to protect her son - an act one Romanian museum official called a "barbarian crime against humanity." She later retracted her claim before a panel of judges.

But the artworks remained missing and receded from the news. Then, Feticu said, she received the letter on Nov 6.

She and Westerman returned to Bucharest with the unearthed painting and sought the help of the Dutch Embassy to turn it over to Romanian authorities, she said.

Annemijn van den Broek, a spokeswoman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands, said Sunday, "I can confirm that the piece was handed over by a third party to the Romanian authorities, and that this happened in the residence of the Dutch ambassador in Bucharest."

The Romanian Directorate for Investigating Organized Crime and Terrorism released its own statement, which said it was "investigating the circumstances in which a Picasso painting with an estimated value of 800,000 euros was found on Saturday evening in Tulcea County."

"The painting, which is part of a batch of seven paintings stolen in 2012 from a Dutch museum, is in the custody of the Romanian authorities and will be authenticated," the statement added.

The next step, authorities said, was to authenticate that the stolen work of art had been recovered at last. The painting was set to be delivered to the National Museum of Art of Romania in Bucharest on Monday to be examined by experts, according to local news reports.

The stolen paintings had been part of a collection amassed by Dutch investor Willem Cordia and had been on display for one week at the Kunsthal Museum when they were taken.

In 2013, the Dutch foundation that owned the artworks collected US$24 million in insurance and surrendered ownership rights on the missing pieces.

When asked about the authenticity of the discovery, Peter van Beveren, who curated the collection from 2007 to 2011, said bluntly by telephone from The Hague: "I have my doubts."

"I have studied some of the images put on the net and I see very big differences," he said. "I see lines that are different in thickness, ease of drawing, lines of the shoulder."

"My feeling now is that there are really different types of lines," he added, even accounting for damage because of poor storage conditions.

As for why Feticu was chosen to unveil its recovery, she said she thought it was because of her book, as well as a Romanian-language interview she gave in May, which received a lot of coverage in Romania.

Feticu also initially said she believed that the painting was the real thing, but admitted that it could easily be a fake.

"I have no idea who sent the letter to me and maybe it is just a bad joke," she said Sunday. "We will see."

It did not take long for another narrative to emerge Sunday. Hours after word of the Picasso's "recovery" ricocheted around the globe, Feticu and her companion said they received another message about the missing Picasso - this time from a performance art group in Flanders, Belgium, called Berlin.

The group took credit for placing a fake in the woods as part of an ongoing project, Feticu said.


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