The two early oil paintings by Vincent Van Gogh stolen from Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum in 2002 and recovered in Italy last fall will be heading home next month. When the announcement that the paintings had been found was released last September, it wasn’t clear when they would be returning to Amsterdam. As evidence in a complex international drug trafficking trial, the artworks could have been tied up in Italy’s Bleak House-slow court system for years. Italian authorities took quick action, however, and on January 19th, a judge in Naples released the paintings from attachment, freeing them to be returned to the Netherlands.
In gratitude for the efforts of the Guardia di Finanza, the financial police who spearheaded the raid on the apartment of drug trafficker Raffaele Imperiale the village of Castellammare di Stabia and discovered the stolen paintings in the basement, other law enforcement agencies, the judiciary and people of Naples, Seascape at Scheveningen (1882) and Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen (1884/85), have gone on display at the Capodimonte Museum for a short exhibition before their homecoming. The paintings went on public view for the first time in 14 years on Tuesday. The show ends on February 26th.
Axel Rüger, director of the Van Gogh Museum: “It is really a miracle that the paintings, which since 2002 were thought to have vanished from the face of the earth, have been found. The efforts of so many people have made the impossible possible. The fact that these two Van Goghs are again on public display after fourteen years calls for a celebration worthy of the occasion. As a ‘grazie mille’ for the efforts of all those involved in Italy in the recovery of the artworks, they are first being shown to the public in the region where they were found. Afterwards, our Van Goghs will return home, where a festive welcome awaits them and our visitors can once more admire them in the Van Gogh Museum. I cannot tell you how happy I am!”
The discovery of the paintings has inspired an upsurge of Van Gogh love in Naples. Vincenzo De Luca, the President of the Campania region, asked Joep Wijnands, the Dutch ambassador to Italy, to help arrange a new Van Gogh exhibition at the Capodimonte Museum. He also said they’re working on a loan of Van Gogh’s iconic The Starry Night, now in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. That’s a lofty goal. The Starry Night has never been loaned to an Italian museum before.
The case raises an interesting question on the wider issue of art crime. This article quotes Giorgio Toschi, general with the Guardia di Finanza:
“More than ever we are seeing art works being used by criminals either as safe haven investments or as a way of making payments or guaranteeing deals between organized criminal groups,” he said at the unveiling of the two paintings on Monday.
This is the first I’ve heard of extremely valuable and recognizable artworks being used as a kind of black market currency in the criminal underworld. It’s fascinating. The most popular explanation, that major paintings are stolen on commission by shadowy private collectors in volcano lairs, almost never seems to pan out. When the paintings are found, they’ve been stashed in barns or sheds or moved all over the place because volcano lairs aside, it’s actually really, really hard to unload a world-famous painting whose theft made international news. It’s always seemed more likely to me that the most of the time thieves have no idea they’ll be saddled with unsaleable goods. Organized crime networks, on the other hand, are hardly cash-poor, so they don’t have to scrounge for buyers. Whether it moves or not, a Van Gogh is still worth tens of millions of dollars. Using it as a marker or a pension fund makes perfect sense.