Two paintings by Vincent van Gogh were stolen from a museum in Amsterdam more than a decade they have been recovered by the Italian authorities in Naples after an undercover operation that targeted organized crime.
The paintings, View of the Sea at Scheveningen, painted in 1882, and Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen, painted in 1884, were recently discovered after allegedly being hidden away in one of the houses of an international drug trafficker based in Castellammare di Stabia, near Naples.
“When we finally found them, we did not believe our eyes,” an unnamed local official told the Italian newspaper La Repubblica.
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,” 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 theft was considered one of the most infamous heists to rock the art world in recent times. 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 through it using a cloth to protect their hands.
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.
The FBI considered the heist one of the “top 10” art crimes, according to its website. Italian investigative authorities told the Ansa news agency that the paintings were worth £77m.
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”.
“The result of this investigation confirms how interested criminal organisations are in art works which they use both as a form of investment and as a source of funds,” he said in a statement.
But one historian and expert in organised crime in Italy, John Dickie, said the reason Italy was known for its expertise in following the illicit trade of art is because it is the home of such a vast network of illegal trading of such goods, as well as antiquities and valuable books.
“Italy also has the best mafia police in the world, because it has the most powerful mafia networks,” Dickie said.
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, experts said. One of the reasons the town is famous is because it was the home of a woman named Assunta Maresca, known as Pupetta, a former beauty queen, convicted murderer, and Camorra boss who has been described as a trailblazer and suffragette in the syndicate.
Unlike the highly organised Sicilian mafia, the Camorra is an “archipelago of gangs”, Dickie said, with some branches being more sophisticated than others.
“With this sort of thing, it is easy to say the Camorra did it and then jump to the conclusion that the Camorra is moving into the art market,” Dickie said.
But 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,” Dickie said.
Generally, highly-valued art can be stolen by thieves for the purpose of selling it, only for the thieves to realise that the work is so famous that it cannot be purchased and shown, forcing them to sell or trade it at a heavy discount.
The camorristi who end up with precious works of art may not even be aware of the value of the painting they have in their posession.
It was not surprising, said Federico Varese, an expert in criminology from Oxford University, that the discovery has 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,” Varese said.
In the Camorra underworld, art – like anything that is valuable – is a currency that can be used in drug trafficking. In some cases, it might also be seen as giving prestige to camorristi, Varese said.
The Italian 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, according to a Reuters report.