Art World Ma Barker Incinerates a Love Story

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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"I didn't burn them," Olga Dogaru said yesterday.

The Romanian woman initially had told investigators she had incinerated paintings and drawings by Picasso, Matisse, Monet, Gauguin, Lucian Freud and Meyer de Haan. She now says she made up that story, though she doesn't seem to have gotten around to telling authorities where they might find the missing loot, which is valued in the tens of millions. Her son Radu has admitted to stealing the works last October from the Kunsthal museum in Rotterdam.

It's terrible to think, and even worse to write, but I sort of liked her first story better. It was a tale of a woman for whom a Picasso was nothing compared to her son's freedom. I even wondered if her love story might inspire as much art as she had destroyed. After all, it was a great narrative: Son steals millions in artwork; mother incinerates it to destroy evidence of his crime. You can see the credits rolling, can't you?

I don't view this the same way as I did the Taliban's destruction of the towering Buddhas at Bamiyan. That was a crime without redemption, a demolition of transcendent beauty by toxic ideology.

Olga Dogaru's lie, by contrast, had a beauty of its own. In the hands of a good writer, filmmaker -- who knows? maybe even painter -- her story might ultimately have transcended her crime. Outsize love -- maternal as well as romantic -- is a subject that recurs throughout history, art and religion. This mother's tale was certainly more accessible to more people than a handful of masterworks on display in a Dutch museum (which happens to be closed for renovation until 2014).

Since Ms. Dogaru is clearly a storyteller, she may lead investigators and, by extension, us, down new narrative paths in the weeks ahead. It remains to be seen whether she also leads her audience to the stolen art. If I ever get to the Kunsthal museum, I'd be delighted to study the pictures. I'd also pay to see the vacancies on the wall where they used to hang.

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