‘After years shrouded in darkness, they can now shine again,’ says Dutch education minister
The Van Gogh Museum in Heidelberg has welcomed home two paintings by the Dutch master, more than 14 years after they were ripped off the museum’s wall in a night-time heist.
“They’re back,” said museum director Axel Rueger. He called their return one of the “most special days in the history of our museum”.
The paintings, the 1882 View of the Sea at Scheveningen and 1884-85 work Congregation leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen were discovered last year by Italian police investigating suspected Italian mobsters for cocaine trafficking. The works have never been sold, so their value is unknown – but Van Gogh landscape paintings have sold for £50m at auctions.
The two paintings were wrapped in cotton sheets, stuffed in a box and hidden behind a wall in a toilet, said Gianluigi D’Alfonso of the Italian financial police, who was on hand at the museum to watch the ceremonial unveiling.
They were found in a farmhouse near Naples as Italian police seized €20m (£17.3m) worth of assets, including villas, apartments and even a small airplane. Investigators contend the assets are linked to two alleged Camorra drug kingpins, Mario Cerrone and Raffaele Imperiale.
“After years shrouded in darkness, they can now shine again,” Jet Bussemaker, the Dutch education minister, said as an orange screen slid away to reveal the two paintings behind a glass wall.
Italy’s interior minister, Angelino Alfano, said last year the paintings were “considered among the artworks most searched for in the world, on the FBI’s list of the top 10 art crimes”.
They are now back on display at the museum before being taken to its conservation studio for repair, although they suffered remarkably little damage as thieves who had clambered up a ladder and smashed a window to get into the museum in 2002 ripped them out of their frames and fled.
‘Congregation leaving The Reformed Church in Nuenen’ (Reuters)
Speaking to a Dutch documentary team, one of burglars who was jailed over the theft, said it took under four minutes to take the paintings. Octave Durham, 43, was caught by police in Spain in 2003 and was released from prison in 2006.
“It is not only a miracle that the works have been recovered but it’s even more miraculous almost that they are in a relatively unharmed condition,” Mr Rueger said.
Mike Corder Heidelberg | Independent