CARCALIU, Romania: Residents of the sleepy Romanian village of Carcaliu, on the banks of the Danube, are ill accustomed to international notoriety.
But in recent weeks they have been thrust into the global spotlight after it emerged that seven stolen masterpieces including works by Picasso and Monet may have been incinerated there in a desperate attempt by a mother to destroy evidence against her son.
The pair are among six Romanians who will go on trial in Bucharest next week over what has been called the “theft of the century,” in which seven masterpieces were swiped from Rotterdam’s Kunsthal museum in less than three minutes.
The heist gripped the art world, and shock turned to horror last month when the mother of the key suspect reportedly admitted to torching the artworks—valued by prosecutors at 18 million euros ($24 million)—in her stove. Experts have put their collective value at more than 100 million euros.
Olga Dogaru has since retracted her statement, but analysis by Romania’s National History Museum showed ashes found in her home contained the remains of three or four paintings.
However, the Romanian museum could not establish if these remains come from the canvases stolen from Rotterdam.
The Kunsthal museum too was unable to indicate if the ashes stemmed from the stolen works.
“The Dutch police and public prosecution haven’t confirmed yet that the paintings have been burned so we cannot confirm either,” a Kunsthal spokeswoman told Agence France-Presse
“If it has been the case, then it underlines the futility of the theft and it’s a loss not only for the owners of the paintings but for all art lovers,” she said.
The scandal has stunned this usually peaceful Romanian village, surrounded by fields of sunflowers and where trailing vines shade the well-kept gardens of pastel-coloured houses.
One grandmother who gave only her surname, Pamfil, said the affair had “blackened the name of the village,” while 66-year-old Ekaterina said it had “created a shock in a community unused to being subjected to searches by masked police.”
Most of the village’s 3,000 residents are Lipovan, a Russian-speaking ethnic minority that fled persecution in Russia 300 years ago.
Only around 1,250, most of them retired, live in Carcaliu year-round—the rest leave to seek work in Italy, mostly in construction or caring for elderly people.
Radu Dogaru, the lead defendant in the art heist trial which will begin on Tuesday, was born into a mixed family, with a Lipovan mother and a Romanian father.
Radu, who denies the charges, is also under investigation over involvement in cases of murder and people trafficking, according to the indictment.
“When he arrived we were sure things were going to go badly. The gang used to steal and make threats,” said one villager who asked to remain anonymous.
Olga Dogaru lived until her arrest in a pretty white house where she is suspected of burning the artworks after retrieving them from a local cemetery where she had hidden them after her son’s arrest.
Today the house is occupied by one of her friends, who refused to allow journalists in and said she knew nothing about the paintings.
Dogaru is also thought to have stored the artworks at the home of his aunt Marfa, keeping her in the dark about the explosive contents of the consignment.
“I am still in shock,” Marfa, a highly respected member of the Carcaliu community, told Agence France-Presse.
The works included Picasso’s “Tete d’Arlequin,” Monet’s “Waterloo Bridge” and Lucian Freud’s “Woman with Eyes Closed.”
“If they were burned it would be very sad. They represent the cultural heritage of future generations,” said Iacob Iacob, a local, who works in Italy but was home on holiday.
Vasile Ivli, the priest in this highly devout community, has appealed to parishioners to come forward with any information they may have about the paintings.
But for Caraliu’s mayor, Anica Toma, it would have been better if it had never happened.
“I want our village to be known for its customs and beauties, not for stolen paintings,” she told Agence France-Presse.
“The reality is that the villagers work hard and don’t create problems.”