Van Gogh masterpieces return home

Two masterpieces by Vincent Van Gogh stolen in an art heist were returned to display at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam last Monday (20 March).

Last October we reported on the recovery of ‘Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church’ (1884) and ‘View of the Sea at Scheveningen’ (1882) by Italian authorities. Fourteen years after they first went missing they were found in the Italian seaside home of mafioso Raffaele Imperiale in September 2016.

The works, which have a combined estimated value of £77 million were stolen by Octave Durham and his accomplice Henk Bieslijn on 7 December 2002. Using a ladder to climb to the top of the Van Gogh Museum they broke in undetected by security cameras, removed the paintings and fled the scene by sliding down a rope.

The return of the paintings coincides with the release of a new documentary about Durham and the art heist, which aired on Dutch television last Tuesday (21 March). Durham told filmmaker Vincent Verweij that it was “trivially easy” to raid the Van Gogh Museum. “Some people are born teachers. Some people are born footballers. I’m a born burglar”, he said.

Durham had intended to steal Van Gogh’s more famous ‘Sunflowers’ canvas but it was too well guarded. He also set his sights on what is recognised as the artist’s first masterpiece, ’The Potato Eaters’, but it was too large to pass through the hole the thieves created when they broke into the museum.

At the time of the theft, mobster Imperiale was selling marijuana out of a coffee shop in Amsterdam. He purchased the paintings for what he considered to be the “bargain” price of €350,000 (£305,000) in March 2003. Imperiale was arrested on suspicion of cocaine trafficking last January but it wasn’t until a tip-off from another suspected dealer that Italian investigators uncovered the missing paintings in Imperiale’s home in Castellammare di Stabia, Naples.

Durham was apprehended by police in Marbella in December 2003 and was imprisoned for just over 25 months. When he met Verweij in 2015, he claimed he wanted to help the Van Gogh Museum find the paintings and abandon his criminal past.

Still furious over the incident the museum refused to cooperate with the documentary film, which it believes Durham has used as a platform for grandstanding. “The last 14 years have been a roller coaster of hope, disappointment and agony”, Museum Director Axel Rüger said.

The museum is the victim in this case, and I would expect very different behavior from someone who shows remorse.”

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