Two Vincent van Gogh paintings stolen from an Amsterdam museum more than a decade ago have been found by Italian law enforcement in Naples after an investigation targeting a powerful organized crime syndicate involved in cocaine trafficking.
The paintings, Sea view in Scheveningenpainted in 1882, and Congregation leaving the Reformed Church of Nuenenpainted in 1884, were discovered after they were allegedly hidden in a house affiliated with an international drug trafficker based in Castellammare di Stabia, near Naples.
Officials hailed the discovery as a major victory in the fight against organized crime. It also provided insight into the inner workings of the Italian underworld, where valuable works of art are considered valuable currency.
The authenticity of the paintings has already been confirmed by an expert from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, from where they were stolen in 2002.
Axel Rütger, director of the Van Gogh Museum, said he did not know when the paintings might be returned to the Netherlands, as they will likely be needed as evidence in the ensuing trial.
“After so many years, I dared not think that they would ever come back,” Rütger said. “We have been waiting for this moment for 14 years and of course we would like to bring them straight home. We will have to show a little patience, but I am convinced that we can count on the support of the Italian authorities.
The frames have been removed and the seascape has a small damaged area in the lower left corner, the museum said, but otherwise the paintings appeared to be in good condition.
The paintings were discovered thanks to a tip from Mario Cerrone, a suspected drug trafficker arrested in January who was collaborating with the Camorra, a notorious Neapolitan crime syndicate made up of numerous clans.
The discovery was part of a larger investigation into the Amato Pagano clan of the Camorra, which prosecutors said was one of the most dangerous and active drug trafficking gangs operating in the area. Investigators came across the paintings in a building they were searching after a judge last week ordered the gang’s assets seized. They also seized a small plane.
“When we finally found them, we couldn’t believe our eyes,” said a local official. The Republic.
The FBI considered the 2002 heist one of the “top 10” artistic crimes, according to its website. The thieves entered the Van Gogh Museum through the roof of the building, which allowed them to pass through security and cameras undetected, even though their entry triggered alarms. They had used a ladder to climb to a window, then smashed
Two men, Octave Durham, an art thief who earned the nickname The Monkey for his ability to evade police, and his accomplice Henk Bieslijn, were ultimately convicted of the theft in 2004 after police discovered their DNA at the crime scene. They were sentenced to four years in prison, but the authorities were never able to find the stolen works.
Sea view in Scheveningen is one of Van Gogh’s earliest paintings and depicts the seaside resort near The Hague. It was the only work in the museum’s collection of Van Gogh’s two years in The Hague and one of only two Dutch seascapes made by the artist.
Congregation leaving the Reformed Church of Nuenen is a smaller work that Van Gogh painted for his mother in 1884 and depicts a church in Brabant where his father Theodore was attached as a preacher. After his father’s death in 1885, Van Gogh revised the painting, adding figures of women wearing black shawls used in mourning.
Dario Franceschini, Italy’s culture minister, said the discovery was extraordinary and “confirms the strength of the Italian system in the fight against the illicit trafficking of works of art”.
John Dickie, a historian and organized crime expert in Italy, said the reason the country was known for its expertise in pursuing the illicit art trade was because of the extent to which the trade existed in the first place.
“Italy also has the best mafia police in the world, because it has the strongest mafia networks,” he added.
The town of Castellammare di Stabia, about 30 km southeast of Naples, where the paintings were found, has long been known as a stronghold of the Camorra. It was the home of Assunta Maresca, known as Pupetta, who was a former beauty queen, convicted murderer and Camorra patron described as a pioneer and suffragist in the union.
Unlike the highly organized Sicilian Mafia, the Camorra is an “archipelago of gangs”, Mr Dickie said, with some branches more sophisticated than others.
“It’s easy to say the Camorra did it and then jump to the conclusion that the Camorra is entering the art market,” Mr Dickie said.
He said the discovery and alleged involvement of the Camorra actually reflected the opportunistic nature of the Neapolitan syndicate. Its members spend a lot of time in prison and are part of a vast underworld network in which illegal goods are sold and traded.
“I don’t think we need to conclude that it’s the Camorra boss who puts this art on his chimney. Often these people don’t have much class [and] they wouldn’t necessarily be impressed by that,” Mr Dickie said.
Federico Varese, a criminology expert from Oxford University, said it was no surprise the discovery revealed a link between Amsterdam and the Camorra, given the Dutch city’s reputation as a hub drug. Cross-border investigations dating back to the 1980s had revealed the presence of the Camorra in Amsterdam.
“What I know for sure is that a lot of camorristi are in Amsterdam, not because they want to be rooted there or racketeer in stores or that sort of thing, but because they’re there to buy drugs. Amsterdam is a hub for buying and selling illegal goods,” Mr Varese said.
Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi briefed his Dutch counterpart Mark Rutte on the police operation ahead of the funeral in Jerusalem of former Israeli leader Shimon Peres. Mr Renzi also tweeted a message of thanks to Italian law enforcement, saying he was proud of their work.