Two stolen Van Gogh paintings recovered from Italian mafia
Artworks taken from museum in Amsterdam 14 years ago recovered after tipoff
Two Vincent van Gogh paintings that were stolen from a museum in Amsterdam more than a decade ago have been recovered by Italian law enforcement authorities in Naples after an investigation targeting a powerful organised crime syndicate involved in the cocaine trade.
The paintings, View of the Sea at Scheveningen, painted in 1882, and Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen, painted in 1884, were discovered after allegedly being hidden away in a house affiliated with an international drug trafficker based in Castellammare di Stabia, near Naples.
Officials hailed the discovery as a major victory in the fight against organised crime. It also provided an insight into the inner workings of the Italian underworld, where precious works of art are seen as valuable currency.
The authenticity of the paintings has already been confirmed by an expert from the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam, from where they were stolen in 2002.
Axel Rütger, director of the Van Gogh museum, said he wasn’t sure when the paintings could be returned to the Netherlands, as they are likely to be needed as evidence in the ensuing trial.
“After so many years I didn’t dare to think they would ever return,” Mr Rütger said. “We’ve waited 14 years for this moment and of course we’d like to take them straight home. We’ll need to exercise a bit of patience, but I am convinced we can count on the support of the Italian authorities.”
The frames have been removed and the seascape has a small patch of damage in the bottom left-hand corner, the museum said, but otherwise the paintings appeared to be in good condition.
The paintings were discovered thanks to a tipoff from Mario Cerrone, a suspected drug trafficker arrested in January who collaborated with the Camorra, a notorious Neapolitan crime syndicate made up of numerous clans.
The discovery was part of a broader investigation into the Camorra’s Amato Pagano clan, which prosecutors said was one of the most dangerous and active gangs of drug traffickers operating in the region. Investigators came across the paintings in a building that they were searching after a judge last week ordered the seizure of the gang’s assets. They also seized a small plane.
“When we finally found them, we did not believe our eyes,” a local official told La Repubblica.
The FBI considered the 2002 heist one of the “top 10” art crimes, according to its website. The thieves entered the Van Gogh museum from the roof of the building, which allowed them to get past security and cameras undetected, even though their entry did trigger alarms. They had used a ladder to climb up to a window and then smashed
Two men, Octave Durham, an art thief who earned the nickname The Monkey for his ability to evade police, and his accomplice Henk Bieslijn, were eventually convicted of the theft in 2004 after police discovered their DNA at the scene of the crime . They were handed four year sentences, but authorities were never able to track down the stolen works.
View of the Sea at Scheveningen is one of Van Gogh’s early paintings and depicts the beach resort close to The Hague. It was the only work in the museum’s collection from Van Gogh’s two years in The Hague and one of just two Dutch seascapes the artist made.
Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen is a smaller work that Van Gogh painted for his mother in 1884, and depicts a church in Brabant where his father Theodorus was attached as a preacher. After his father’s death in 1885 Van Gogh revised the painting, adding figures of women wearing black shawls used in mourning.
Dario Franceschini, the Italian culture minister, said the discovery was extraordinary and “confirmed the strength of the Italian system in the fight against the illicit trafficking of works of art”.
John Dickie, a historian and expert in organised crime in Italy, said the reason the country was known for its expertise in following the illicit trade of art was the extent to which that trade existed in the first place.
“Italy also has the best mafia police in the world, because it has the most powerful mafia networks,” he added.
The town of Castellammare di Stabia, about 19 miles south-east of Naples, where the paintings were found, has long been known as a Camorra stronghold. It was the home of Assunta Maresca, known as Pupetta, who was a former beauty queen, convicted murderer, and Camorra boss described as a trailblazer and suffragette in the syndicate.
Unlike the highly organised Sicilian mafia, the Camorra is an “archipelago of gangs”, Mr Dickie said, with some branches being more sophisticated than others.
“It is easy to say the Camorra did it and then jump to the conclusion that the Camorra is moving into the art market,” Mr Dickie said.
He said the discovery and the alleged involvement of the Camorra actually reflects the opportunistic nature of the Neapolitan syndicate. Its members spend a lot of time in prison and are part of a vast underworld network in which illegal goods are sold and traded.
“I don’t think we need to conclude that it’s the Camorra boss who is putting this art on his mantlepiece. A lot of times these people don’t have a lot of class [and] they wouldn’t necessarily be impressed by having this,” Mr Dickie said.
Federico Varese, an expert in criminology from Oxford University, said it was unsurprising that the discovery exposed a link between Amsterdam and the Camorra, given the Dutch city’s reputation as a major drug hub. Cross-border investigations dating back to the 1980s had found the presence of the Camorra in Amsterdam.
“What I know for sure is that a lot of camorristi are in Amsterdam, not because they want to be rooted there or deal in racketeering of shops or that kind of thing, but because they are there to buy drugs. Amsterdam is a hub for the buying and selling of illegal goods,” Mr Varese said.
Italy’s prime minister Matteo Renzi informed his Dutch counterpart Mark Rutte about the police operation before the funeral in Jerusalem of former Israeli leader Shimon Peres. Mr Renzi also tweeted a message of thanks to Italian law enforcement, saying he was proud of their work.