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Romanians admit stealing art works in Netherlands

BUCHAREST, Romania (AP) — Three Romanians have pleaded guilty to stealing seven paintings, including works by Picasso, Monet and Matisse, from a Dutch museum in a daring nighttime raid that shocked the art world.

Radu Dogaru, Alexandru Bitu and Eugen Darie, told a Bucharest court on Tuesday that they took the multimillion-dollar paintings from the Kunsthal Museum in October 2012. They were charged with the theft and of bringing the paintings into Romania.

The works have never been found, and may have been burned. In their depositions to prosecutors, the suspects, who were arrested in January, said they brought the paintings to Romania, tried to sell them on the black market, then left them with Dogaru's mother, Olga Dogaru.

Chief suspect Radu Dogaru told the court Tuesday that when he stole the paintings on the night of Oct. 15-16, he thought they were fakes. "I could not believe you could enter as easily as that," he said. "The security was practically inexistent. The door was closed but not blocked. I entered practically just with a screwdriver."

He told the court that the paintings were handed over to a Russian Ukrainian man whom he identified and wrote the man's address on a piece of paper for the court. The name was not publicly confirmed. He also claimed that at one point he had told a Dutch prosecutor that he would return five of the paintings to Dutch authorities, but that they declined the offer, asking for all seven.

Dogaru denied the paintings had been burned in his mother's stove. He said that remains of paint, canvas and nails identified in the ash by a Romanian museum could have been from a fence with handmade nails or from 19th-century icons that were in the family home.

Olga Dogaru, who is charged with handling stolen property, had told investigators she burned the paintings, but later denied it. Six Romanians have been put on trial in the case, including one who is being tried in absentia and another who is not under arrest.

Thieves broke in through a rear emergency exit of the Kunsthal, grabbed the paintings off the wall, put them in sacks and fled — all within minutes — in the biggest art heist to hit the Netherlands for more than a decade.

The stolen paintings were: Pablo Picasso's 1971 "Harlequin Head"; Claude Monet's 1901 "Waterloo Bridge, London" and "Charing Cross Bridge, London"; Henri Matisse's 1919 "Reading Girl in White and Yellow"; Paul Gauguin's 1898 "Girl in Front of Open Window"; Meyer de Haan's "Self-Portrait," around 1890; and Lucian Freud's 2002 work "Woman with Eyes Closed."

The paintings have an estimated value of tens of millions of dollars, if sold at auction. The next hearing in the case is on Nov. 19.

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