As international art thefts go, this van Gogh heist was rather low tech.
In 2002, thieves used a ladder to break into a second-story window at the Vincent van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. They snatched two relatively small Van Gogh paintings and escaped by sliding down a rope.
The thieves left enough DNA at the scene to be quickly caught and sentenced to about four years apiece. One of the FBI’s top 10 art thefts was solved.
Recovering the paintings, worth millions, was another story. They had vanished without a trace and, after 14 years, authorities had given up hope of locating them.
“After all those years, you no longer dare to count on a possible return,” Axel Rüger, director of the museum, said in a news release.
It was a blow for the museum. Van Gogh, who was Dutch, is a postimpressionist who is one of the most famous painters in the history of Western art.
But last week, the museum received a phone call from Italian investigators, according to the Associated Press. The Italian feds had raided the country home of Mafioso Raffaele Imperiale, the suspected head of a cocaine-smuggling ring. Imperiale was long gone, possibly in Dubai.
But inside a safe, wrapped in cloth were the paintings: “Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen,” which van Gogh created between 1884 and 1885 and “View of the Sea at Scheveningen” (1882).
In a lengthy statement, the museum said the paintings will fill big gaps in their collection when returned:
Seascape at Scheveningen is the only painting in our museum collection dating from van Gogh’s period in The Hague (1881-1883). It is one of the only two seascapes that he painted during his years in the Netherlands and it is a striking example of Van Gogh’s early style of painting, already showing his highly individual character …
Congregation leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen is a small canvas that van Gogh painted for his mother in early 1884. It shows the church of the Reformed Church community in the Brabant village of Nuenen, Van Gogh’s father being its Minister. In 1885, after his father’s death, Van Gogh reworked the painting and added the churchgoers in the foreground, among them a few women in shawls worn in times of mourning. This may be a reference to his father’s death. The strong biographical undertones make this a work of great emotional value.
It’s unclear if the paintings have been in the safe for more than a decade or have made a winding journey. Either way, the museum said, the paintings “were not preserved under suitable conditions.” A 2-inch by 1-inch chunk of paint has chipped off “Seascape,” and “Congregation leaving the Reformed church in Nuenen” has a few minor damages at the edge of the canvas.
A conservator will determine the exact condition of the paintings, the museum said.
Director of Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum Alex Rüger, center, stands next to the recovered paintings. (Ciro Fusco/ANSA via AP)
The museum couldn’t say when that will happen — the art pieces are also pieces of evidence in a sprawling case that has put 11 people behind bars, the AP said. Investigators are trying to see if the crime syndicate was behind the art theft, or if the paintings were purchased with drug money.
But Rüger said museum officials are practicing patience.
“We have been waiting for this moment for 14 years,” Rüger said. “And naturally the only thing you want is to take them straight home with you. But we will have to exercise a little bit more patience.”