The artwork was taken from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam in December 2002 by thieves who broke into the building using a ladder to gain access to the roof.
The paintings “Congregation leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen”, from 1884/85, and “Seascape at Scheveningen”, from 1882, were found wrapped in fabric in the basement of an apartment belonging to Raffaele Imperiale – a wealthy and powerful drug dealer, according to Italian prosecutor Filippo Beatrice.
The discovery in the village of Castellammare di Stabia was part of a wider investigation into the Amato Pagano clan, an international drug trafficking group affiliated with the Camorra, Naples’ notorious mafia.
Italian anti-Mafia department prosecutor Maria Vittoria De Simone said Imperial is believed to be on the run in the United Arab Emirates. The Italian authorities have requested his extradition.
Apartments, villas and a plane worth an estimated 22.3 million dollars (20 million euros) were also seized as part of the ongoing investigation. Video released after Monday’s raid showed Italian police removing a mirrored wall at a home gym to reveal a cavernous underground space that hid the plane.
“Huge” historical value
For the Amsterdam museum that once housed the long-lost paintings, their recovery is a huge relief.
“The paintings have been found! That I will ever be able to utter these words is something I no longer dared to hope for,” said Axel Ruger, director of the museum. “We’ve been waiting for this moment for 14 years.”
Both paintings have “enormous” historical value according to the museum, since the Dutch master’s aquatic seascape is his only work from his years in The Hague from 1881 to 1883, and is an important example of his early style of painting. .
The small canvas from the church in Nuenen, where the artist’s father was a pastor in the Dutch Reformed Church, has “great emotional value”, according to the museum’s website. It was painted for his mother and reworked after his father’s death in 1885, with the addition of worshipers wearing mourning shawls.
An art curator checked the authenticity of the paintings and firmly concluded they were real before the find was announced on Friday.
Both works are said to be in good condition, although the paint has peeled off in the lower left corner of the Scheveningen scene and there is minor damage to the edges of the paint in the Nuenen church. It is not known where they were stored after their flight to Amsterdam.
Major art crime
The FBI gave the paintings a combined value of $30 million in its “Top Ten Art Crimes” list in 2005.
During a press conference in Naples, Ruger expressed a “great debt of gratitude” to Italian police and prosecutors for their continued efforts to locate them.
“After all these years, you don’t dare to count on a possible return,” Ruger said. “It’s really a major milestone that the paintings have been found.”
While museum officials are eager to return the artworks to their homes, they will have to be patient while the paintings are held as evidence for a criminal trial in Italy.
The date of the hearing has not yet been announced as Italian police are still investigating.
But for the museum, which houses the largest collection of Van Gogh works in the world, the eventual return of the stolen paintings will fill an important gap in its collection of 800 works.
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