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Stolen van Gogh paintings return to Amsterdam after 14 years

Two paintings by Vincent van Gogh that were stolen in a smash-and-grab heist more than 14 years ago went back on display Tuesday at the Amsterdam museum dedicated to the Dutch master.

'After years shrouded in darkness, they can now shine again,' says Dutch culture minister

Van Gogh Museum director Axel Rueger, left, and Dutch Culture Minister Jet Bussemaker speak next to the recovered Vincent van Gogh work Seascape at Scheveningen, one of two paintings stolen back in 2002, in Amsterdam on Tuesday. (Peter Dejong/Associated Press)

Two paintings by Vincent van Gogh that were stolen in a smash-and-grab heist more than 14 years ago went back on display Tuesday at the Amsterdam museum dedicated to the Dutch master.

"They're back!" said Van Gogh Museum director Axel Rueger, calling 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.

It wasn't an easy find. The two paintings were wrapped in cotton sheets, stuffed in a box and hidden behind a wall in a toilet, said Gen. Gianluigi D'Alfonso of the Italian financial police, who was on hand at the museum for the ceremonial unveiling.

Rueger, left, and Bussemaker take a closer look at the recovered paintings, now displayed behind a glass wall, in Amsterdam on Tuesday. (Peter Dejong/Associated Press)

The paintings were found in a farmhouse near Naples as Italian police seized €20 million (about $28.8 million Cdn) worth of assets, including villas, apartments and even a small airplane. Investigators contend the assets are linked to two Camorra drug kingpins, Mario Cerrone and Raffaele Imperiale.

"After years shrouded in darkness, they can now shine again," said Jet Bussemaker, the Dutch minister for education, culture and science said as an orange screen slid away to reveal the two paintings behind a glass wall.

Thieves coveted Sunflowers, The Potato Eaters 

One of the two men convicted of stealing the paintings told the Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf that said he originally wanted to steal van Gogh's world famous Sunflowers painting, but it was too well protected.

Another well-known van Gogh work, The Potato Eaters, was too big to get through the hole that Octave Durham and his accomplice smashed in the security glass to get into the museum after clambering over a fence and using a ladder to get onto its roof.

Durham, who was sentenced to more than three years in prison after being convicted in 2004, told De Telegraaf that the paintings were sold to the mafia after a Dutch criminal who had agreed to buy them was murdered.

It is not only a miracle that the works have been recovered but it's even more miraculous almost that they are in relatively unharmed condition.- Axel   Rueger , Van Gogh Museum director 

The paintings are now back on display at the museum before being taken to its conservation studio for repair. Experts said they suffered remarkably little damage even as the thieves in 2002 ripped them out of their frames and fled.

"It is not only a miracle that the works have been recovered but it's even more miraculous almost that they are in relatively unharmed condition," Rueger said.

The museum director was on vacation when the call came last year from Italian authorities who believed they had recovered the paintings. He didn't celebrate right away; he'd had calls like this before.

"I was hopeful but also a little hesitant, because over the course of the years we had multiple occasions when people phoned us, contacted us, claiming that they knew something about the whereabouts of the works. And each time it was false, the trace went cold," he said.

"The way has been peppered with disappointment."

But museum experts dispatched to Italy to check the authenticity of the works quickly turned Rueger's doubts into delight.

"It was something we had secretly been hoping for, for all those years," he said.

Media gather to capture images of two recovered Vincent van Gogh paintings in Amsterdam on Tuesday. (Peter Dejong/Associated Press)

Vital to museum's collection

The two small works are not typical of van Gogh's later and better-known works, but are still vital pieces for the museum's collection, Rueger said.

The Scheveningen seascape, with a fishing boat and rough sea under a typically gray, cloudy Dutch sky, is one of van Gogh's earliest works. It is the only painting in the museum's collection painted during his time in The Hague. It suffered a missing rectangular chip from the bottom left-hand corner.

The painting of the church in Nuenen portrayed the village where his parents lived.

"He had painted as a gift to his mother, so it's a very personal and emotional connection," Rueger said.

Rueger said the paintings are now back for good at a museum, which is home to dozens of works by van Gogh, whose paintings fetch millions of dollars on the rare occasions they come up for auction.

"The security, I can assure you, is of Triple-A quality now. So I'm very confident that everything is safe in the museum," he said.

A look at some other artworks that have been recovered after being stolen in Europe:

  • February 2008: Three men, wearing ski masks and dark clothing, entered the Buehrle museum in Zurich a half-hour before closing on a Sunday. While one used a pistol to force museum personnel to the floor, the two others swiped four paintings by Cézanne, Degas, van Gogh and Monet worth $163 million US. Shocked police called it one of the biggest heists in European history. The van Gogh and Monet paintings were recovered later that month, while the Cé​zanne turned up in 2012.

  • August 2003: A $65-million US Leonardo da Vinci painting was stolen from Drumlanrig Castle in southern Scotland by two men who joined a public tour and overpowered a guide. It was recovered four years later.

  • December 2000: Hooded thieves stole a self-portrait by Rembrandt and two Renoir paintings worth an estimated $36 million US from Stockholm's waterfront National Museum, using a motorboat in their escape. All paintings were recovered.

  • November 1983: Seven Italian Renaissance masterpieces were stolen from the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest, Hungary. Experts estimated the paintings' value at $7 million US. All of the paintings, which included works by Raphael and Tintoretto, were recovered within a year. Some were found in a sack that had been pulled from the Danube River.

  • October 1982: Eight paintings were stolen from the Norwegian National Gallery in Oslo. Seven of them, which were valued at $5.55 million US and included masterpieces by Picasso, Rembrandt and van Gogh, were recovered almost two years later near Frankfurt.

  • April 1974: Jan Vermeer's Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid was among the 19 paintings stolen from the home of Sir Alfred Beit in County Wicklow, Ireland. The paintings, recovered eight days after the theft, were valued at $19.2 million US, including $6.9 million for the Vermeer.

  • August 1911: Arguably the most famous painting in the world, Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa, was stolen from the Louvre in Paris. It was recovered in Italy two years later. Vincenzo Perruggia, an employee of the Paris museum, served a year and 15 days in prison for the theft.