Two paintings by Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh stolen from an Amsterdam museum over a decade ago have been recovered in seaside town in Italy.
‘Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church’ (1884) and ‘View of the Sea at Scheveningen’ (1882) are collectively valued at £77 million. They are examples of Van Gogh’s early work with the Scheveningen piece one of just two Dutch seascapes ever made by the artist. In December 2002, thieves used a ladder to climb to the roof of the Van Gogh Museum and broke in undetected by cameras. Octave ‘The Monkey’ Durham and his accomplice Henk Bieslijn removed the works from the walls of the main exhibition hall in minutes and escaped the scene by sliding down a rope. The notorious heist made the FBI’s list of “top 10” art crimes and baffled experts because security guards had been on patrol at the time of the raid. In 2004 the art thieves were convicted of theft after police discovered their DNA at the scene of the crime but the artworks were never found.
It was only after a tipoff from a suspected drug trafficker that Italian police were led to the stolen paintings hidden in the home of a Naples mafia boss. Mario Cerrone apparently told the Italian authorities about the two paintings after he was arrested in January this year as part of a broader investigation by Italian law enforcement into a powerful Neapolitan crime syndicate called the Camorra. Last week, after a judge ordered Italian authorities to seize the assets of the Camorra’s Amato Pagano clan, police uncovered the paintings wrapped in cloth in a safe in the home of Raffaele Imperiale, an alleged drug boss linked to the Camorra.
The recovery of the paintings stunned the director of the Van Gogh Museum, Axel Rüger. “After so many years I didn’t dare to think they would ever return…We’ve waited 14 years for this moment”, he said. Italy’s Culture Minister Dario Franceschini praised the efforts of Italian authorities, which he said provided “confirmation of the strength of the Italian system in the fight against illegal art trafficking”. An expert from the Van Gogh Museum has already authenticated the works but a return date has not yet been scheduled as they may be needed as evidence in a forthcoming trial.