AMSTERDAM — Two tables ofwhich were stolen during a burglary returned to the Amsterdam museum dedicated to the Dutch master on Tuesday.
“They are back!” said Axel Rueger, director of the Van Gogh Museum, calling their return “the most special days in the history of our museum”.
The paintings, the 1882 ‘View of the Sea at Scheveningen’ and the 1884-85 work ‘Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church at Nuenen’, were discovered last year by Italian police investigating suspected Italian gangsters for cocaine trafficking.
It was not an easy find. The two paintings were wrapped in cotton sheets, stuffed in a box and hidden behind a wall in a toilet, said General Gianluigi D’Alfonso of Italy’s financial police, who was on hand at the museum for the unveiling ceremony. .
The paintings were found on a farm near Naples as Italian police seized 20 million euros ($21.6 million) worth of assets, including villas, apartments and even a small plane. Investigators say the assets are linked to two Camorra drug kingpins, Mario Cerrone and Raffaele Imperiale.
“After years shrouded in darkness, they can now shine again,” said Jet Bussemaker, the Dutch minister for education, culture and science, as an orange screen slid to reveal the two paintings. behind a glass wall.
One of the two men found guilty of stealing the paintings told Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf that he originally wanted to steal Van Gogh’s famous ‘Sunflowers’ painting, but was too well protected.
Another well-known work by Van Gogh, ‘The Potato Eaters’, was too large to fit through the hole that Octave Durham and his accomplice smashed in the security glass to enter the museum after climbing a fence and using a ladder to get there. its roof.
Durham, who was sentenced to 3½ years in prison after being found guilty in 2004, told De Telegraaf the paintings were sold to the mafia after a Dutch criminal who agreed to buy them was murdered .
The paintings are now once again on display at the museum before being taken to its conservation workshop for repair. Experts said they suffered remarkably little damage even as thieves in 2002 ripped them from their frames and fled.
“It’s not just a miracle that the works were recovered, but it’s even more miraculous that they are in relatively unscathed condition,” Rueger said.
The museum director was on holiday when the call came last year from Italian authorities who believed they had recovered the paintings. He didn’t celebrate right away; he had received calls like this before.
“I was hopeful but also a bit hesitant, because over the years we’ve had multiple occasions where people have called us, contacted us, saying they know something about the whereabouts of the works. And every time it was wrong, the trail went cold,” he said. “The path has been strewn with disappointment.”
But museum experts dispatched to Italy to verify the authenticity of the works quickly turn Rueger’s doubts into delight.
“It was something we had been secretly hoping for all these years,” he said.
The two small works are not typical of Van Gogh’s later and better-known works, but are still essential pieces for the museum’s collection, Rueger said.
The Scheveningen seascape, with a fishing boat and rough seas under a typically gray and cloudy Dutch sky, is one of Van Gogh’s earliest works. It is the only painting in the museum’s collection painted during his stay in The Hague. It suffered a missing rectangular chip in the lower left corner.
The painting in Nuenen Church depicts the village where his parents lived.
“He had painted as a gift to his mother, so it’s a very personal and emotional connection,” Rueger said.
Rueger said the paintings are now back for good in a museum, which houses dozens of works by Van Gogh, whose paintings fetch millions of dollars on the rare occasions they are auctioned.
“Security, I can assure you, is now Triple-A grade. So I’m very confident that everything is safe in the museum,” he said.