Hopes that a missing Picasso artwork had been found safely hidden under a tree in Romania appear to have been dashed, after a Belgian theatre company said it buried the forgery and stage-managed its discovery as part of a production.
Picasso's Tête d'Arlequin, or Harlequin's Head was one of seven paintings stolen in a bold raid on the Kunsthal museum in Rotterdam in 2012, including canvases by Monet, Gauguin and Matisse.
Four Romanians were jailed over the theft, and the mother of the alleged ringleader, Radu Dogaru, told police she had stuffed the paintings into a stove and burned them to destroy evidence.
She later retracted her statement, however, fuelling doubt over the true fate of the paintings, which belonged to the private Triton Foundation.
On Saturday, Dutch writers Mira Feticu and Frank Westerman found what appeared to be Tête d'Arlequin under a tree in eastern Romania, after following directions contained in an anonymous tip-off received by Feticu – an author of Romanian descent who published a novel based on the art theft.
Yet the chance of a fortuitous twist in the tale of the painting, which is valued at about €800,000, quickly began to fade.
Feticu said on Sunday she had received an email from members of the Berlin theatre company in Antwerp, revealing that the letter she had received was part of their current production True Copy, which revolves around the life of Dutch forger Geert Jan Jansen.
"These past two days it has become clear that the fake Tête d'Arlequin . . . was left on the premises by Berlin," the theatre group announced on Monday.
"On Tuesday, October 31st, we buried the Tête d'Arlequin. On Wednesday, November 1st, we sent out six anonymous letters with a location and instructions, in the hope the work would be found quickly and authenticated as the real Tête d'Arlequin."
The theatre company said it wanted "to show how the Tête d'Arlequin could find its way back into the original Triton collection" and "to find out at which point in the process things would falter".
The group insisted “the whole construction fits into a performance and is not a publicity stunt . . . That is why we have decided not to seek the spotlights and to abstain from making any further comments or giving interviews in the press.”
Romanian prosecutor Raluca Cristiana Botea, who investigated the theft, said: "It's not clear to me who made the fake, because I understand that it is a very good forgery and includes notes and stamps on the back of the painting.
“I hope that if they were somehow destroyed, they weren’t all destroyed,” she said of the missing canvases.
“There’s no certainty that those seven paintings were burned, but there is certainty that pictures were burned in that stove.”