ROME (AP) — Police investigating suspected Italian cocaine gangsters have discovered two Van Gogh paintings hidden on a farm near Naples, masterpieces that went missing in a 2002 nighttime robbery in Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, authorities said on Friday.
Both paintings were “considered among the most wanted works of art in the world, on the FBI’s list of Top 10 Art Crimes,” Interior Minister Angelino Alfano said.
They were found on a farm near Castellammare di Stabia as Italian police seized some 20 million euros ($22 million) in assets, including farmland, villas and apartments and a small plane. Investigators say these assets are linked to two Camorra drug kingpins, Mario Cerrone and Raffaele Imperiale, according to a statement from prosecutors Giovanni Colangelo and Filippo Beatrice.
The recovered masterpieces, propped up on easels, were unveiled to journalists on Friday during a press conference in Naples. Museum director Axel Rueger said Italian investigators contacted the museum earlier in the week and art experts determined the paintings were genuine.
“Needless to say, today is a big day for us,” Rueger told Sky TG24 TV. “We hope they will be back in their place soon.”
With their frames removed and covered in cotton canvas, the paintings appeared to be in relatively good condition despite their long odyssey, the museum said.
One of the paintings, the “Marine of Scheveningen” from 1882, is one of Vincent Van Gogh’s first major works. It depicts a boat setting off into a stormy sea, and the thick paint has trapped grains of sand that exploded from the Dutch beach as Van Gogh worked there for two days.
The other is an 1884-85 work, “Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church of Nuenen,” which depicts a church in the southern Netherlands where the artist’s father was the pastor. Experts believe it was made for Van Gogh’s mother.
Despite the wishes of the museum, the paintings are not leaving Italy any time soon. They are evidence in an investigation into whether gangsters from the Camorra crime syndicate were behind the initial theft or may have been involved in the artwork later.
The Camorra is one of the three largest organized crime syndicates in Italy, with the Calabria-based ‘ndrangheta being by far the most powerful. The Camorra is made up of numerous criminal clans, based in Naples as well as many smaller towns in the Campania region.
Financial policy. Colonel Giovanni Salerno said investigators investigating the syndicate’s cocaine trafficking operations had been tipped off that the Camorra may possess Van Gogh’s artwork.
“One of the people under investigation made significant comments about their illegal investments made with drug trafficking proceeds, and he pointed to two high-value paintings that were allegedly purchased by Imperiale. They are the result of a robbery at the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam almost 14 years ago,” Colangelo, Naples’ chief prosecutor, told reporters.
When renowned masterpieces are stolen, it is usually a theft commissioned by a private collector who has already agreed to buy them, as it is virtually impossible to sell them on the legitimate art market. .
The Camorra and other Italian crime syndicates, awash in illegal revenue from drug trafficking, counterfeit designer goods and toxic waste trafficking, are increasingly looking to launder their dirty profits and make even more money in the process.
Salerno said a person at the farm when the paintings were found “did not say a word” about how they ended up there. He declined to give further details, saying the matter was still under investigation.
The museum said the paintings, inspected by a curator, show “some damage”. Authorities do not know where the paintings have been kept in the 14 years since they were stolen by thieves who broke into the museum at night and fled with the works from the exhibition hall main hall, where dozens of paintings by Van Gogh were exhibited.
The seascape painting had paint in the lower left corner, while the other painting had “some minor damage to the edges of the canvas,” according to a museum statement.
Police who arrived at the Amsterdam museum on December 7, 2002 discovered a 4.5 meter (15 foot) ladder leaning against the back of the building.
The thieves had apparently climbed to the second floor using a ladder and entered through a window, according to Dutch police at the time. Within a year, Dutch authorities had arrested two suspects, but the whereabouts of the paintings remained a mystery – until Italian authorities searched the farm.
“After all these years, you no longer dare to count on a possible return,” Rueger said. “The paintings have been found! That I could ever utter those words was something I no longer dared hope for.
Follow Frances D’Emilio on Twitter at www.twitter.com/fdemilio
This story has been corrected to show that the museum director’s first name is Axel, not Alex.