An immense artistic heritage valued at around 5 billion euros is irredeemably lost each year in the profitable black market of art. And it is believed that more than 90% of the stolen masterpieces are never recovered (see post, A Century of Art Thefts, May 5, 2016).
But this year (2016) there are two notable exceptions. The 17 masterpieces stolen from a Verona Museum in November 2015 were recovered in May in the Ukraine on the border of Moldavia (see post, Art Masterpieces Stolen from Verona Museum, January 21, 2016).
And, more recently, two Van Gogh paintings that had been stolen during a daring heist from an Amsterdam museum in 2002 were recovered in Italy. The paintings, “Seascape at Scheveningen” (1982) and “Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen” (1885) were early works that Van Gogh painted in Holland. Early one December morning 14 years ago, burglars climbed onto the museum roof using a ladder, broke through a window, and then escaped with the paintings out the side of the building using a rope. The robbery is considered by the FBI to be one of the top ten global art crimes.
What also makes this case interesting is the connection to organized crime in Italy. The chief anti-mafia prosecutor in Naples said that the paintings were retrieved during a huge and continuing investigation of the Amato-Pagano clan of the Camorra Mafia family (“one of the most dangerous crime groups”), which is known for international cocaine trafficking. In January 2016, Italian prosecutors arrested several gang members; one “turned state’s evidence” and told police that the two paintings were in a house in Castellammare di Stabia, near Naples.
This house was a summer home of Raffaele Imperiale, one of the leaders of the trafficking gang. He is now at large in Dubai, and Italian authorities are seeking his extradition. The paintings were found wrapped in cloth in a safe in the narrow hallway near the kitchen.
Dario Franceschini, the Italian culture minister, said that this case “confirms how much criminal organizations are interested in works of art, which are used as a form of investment as well as a front of financing.” Also, the Mafia often steals art to use as a kind of payment within their own families. Or, if a boss is caught, he can sometimes make a deal for a lesser sentence in exchange for offering help to find stolen works of art.
How the Van Gogh paintings came into the hands of the Camorra is the focus of the continuing investigation. Soon after the 2002 robbery two men were caught and convicted of the theft thanks in part to DNA evidence, but the paintings were not recovered. They were believed to be circulating in the Dutch criminal underworld. Now Italian prosecutors want to connect the dots….
The director of the Van Gogh Museum is elated at the recovery. He went to Italy to authenticate the paintings. While they appear to be only slightly damaged (they had been removed from their frames), they are probably worth more than $100 million. The church painting has emotional value as well, as it depicts the church in Nuenen where Van Gogh’s father served as pastor. After his father’s death, Van Gogh added figures in mourning dress leaving the church, and he gave it as a gift to his mother.