The Culture First Look

Stolen Van Goghs returned to Dutch museum

The two paintings, titled 'Seascape at Scheveningen' (1882) and 'Congregation leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen' (1884-1885), were stolen in a nighttime heist 15 years ago and recovered by police in Italy.

Van Gogh Museum director Axel Rueger, left, and Jet Bussemaker, Minister for Education, Culture and Science, walk towards two stolen and recovered paintings by Dutch master Vincent van Gogh during a press conference in Amsterdam, the Netherlands on Tuesday.
Peter Dejong/AP
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Two paintings by Vincent Van Gogh have returned to Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum, more than fourteen years after they were stolen by thieves who broke into the museum and spirited them away for sale to an Italian mobster.

The Dutch master's "Seascape at Scheveningen," and "Congregation leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen," painted in 1882 and 1884-85, respectively, were recovered in September by Italian police in a hidden wall space in a villa that prosecutors say belonged to Raffaele Imperiale, who is accused of running an international cocaine trafficking ring.

The paintings' return was one of the "most special days in the history of our museum," museum director Axel Rueger said on Tuesday, according to the Associated Press.

 

“Seascape at Scheveningen,” whose paint contains sand that blew onto the canvas as the artist worked during a summer storm on the beach, depicts a small ship in the midst of breaking waves, with dark storm clouds overhead. It is the museum’s only work from Mr. Van Gogh’s period of study in The Hague.

“Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen” shows a church in the southern province of Brabant, where Van Gogh’s father was a minister, according to the museum, and was made for Van Gogh’s mother, who was confined to her bed with a broken leg. Upon his father’s death, the painter added black-clad figures of mourning.

Both paintings, which have suffered relatively minor damage since the 2002 heist, will go back on display at the museum until mid-May, after which they will be removed to the museum's conservation studio for repair.

The paintings' return is accompanied by a Dutch television documentary about the heist. Octave Durham, one of the two men who carried out the theft, for which he later served just over 25 months in prison, appears in the documentary, bragging of his swift entry and exit from the museum – including a jarring descent from a rope on the way out that chipped paint on the seascape’s bottom left corner – and subsequent sale, for about $380,000, to Mr. Imperiale, who was selling marijuana in an Amsterdam coffee shop, according to the New York Times.

As The Christian Science Monitor’s Ellen Powell noted in September, authorities believe the paintings were purchased by Imperiale as part of an effort to sink profits from drug trafficking into assets. Police have seized some 20 million euros ($22 million) from Imperiale, who is believed to be living in Dubai. In January, he was sentenced to 20 years in prison, and Italian authorities are seeking his extradition.

Investigators were led to the paintings by an alleged fellow member of the trafficking ring, who was arrested along with 10 others last January. But their initial break came from an August 2016 letter to the Naples public prosecutor from Imperiale himself, who admitted that he was in possession of the paintings. 

The precise value fetched by the two paintings is largely a matter of guesswork, as neither have been put up on art markets, but Italian police estimate it at about 50 million euros ($53.97 million) each. 

This report includes material from the Associated Press and Reuters.