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Van Gogh masterpieces stolen 14 years ago recovered from barn

ROME -- Italian police have found two Van Gogh paintings that were stolen from an Amsterdam museum in 2002 hidden in a farmhouse near an organized crime syndicate’s Naples-area stronghold, investigators said Friday.

The paintings, discovered without their frames, are in “relatively good condition,” the Van Gogh Museum said in a statement on its website. It said the two paintings are the 1882 work “Seascape at Scheveningen” and a later work, “Congregation leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen.”

The earlier painting contains grains of sand that were stirred up from the beach as Van Gogh worked. The other depicts a church in the south of the Netherlands where the artist’s father was the pastor.

The recovered masterpieces, propped up on easels, were unveiled for reporters at a news conference in Naples. Museum director Axel Rueger said Italian investigators contacted the museum earlier in the week and asked it to send an expert to examine the paintings. Art experts determined they are authentic.

“Needless to say it’s a great day for us today,” Rueger told Sky TG24 TV. “We hope they are soon back where they belong.”

That might take some time. Authorities noted the paintings, found covered in cotton cloth in the farmhouse near Castellammare di Stabia, are part of an investigation of whether gangsters from the Camorra crime syndicate were behind the theft or if they got involved later.

Director of Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum Axel Ruger (L) unveils a painting by the Dutch artist Vincent Van Gogh, that was stolen in Amsterdam 14 years ago, during a news conference in Naples, Italy, Sept. 30, 2016. REUTERS

Financial Police. Col. Giovanni Salerno said investigators looking into the syndicate’s cocaine trafficking operations got a tip that the Camorra might have had the artworks.

When renowned masterpieces are stolen, a theft commissioned by a private collector who has already agreed to buy them is usually suspected, since it would be virtually impossible to sell them in the legitimate art market.

With “enormous profits” from drug trafficking, the Camorra are looking for new ways to invest their ill-gained wealth, which might include stolen artworks, Salerno said.

Salerno said a person at the farmhouse when the paintings were found “didn’t say a word” about how they wound up there. He declined to elaborate, saying the case is still under investigation.

Investigators seized some 20 million euros ($22 million) worth of assets, including farmland, villas and apartments, which they say are linked to two Camorra drug kingpins, Mario Cerrone and Raffaele Imperiale, prosecutors Giovanni Colangelo and Filippo Beatrice said in a statement.

The organized crime investigative unit of the Financial Guard, a branch of the Italian police, often sequesters assets of suspected mobsters.

The museum said the paintings, inspected by a curator, do show “some damage.” It added that it is not known where the paintings were kept in the 14 years since they were stolen. Thieves broke into the museum overnight and made off with the works from the main exhibition hall, were dozens of Van Gogh paintings were on display.

The seascape work had some paint in the bottom left corner broken away, with the other had “a few minor damages at the edges of the canvas,” the museum statement said. Rueger said the museum owes a debt of gratitude to Italian authorities.

“After all these years, you no longer dare count on a possible return,” he said.

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