Five paintings stolen in 2005 return to Dutch museum

The paintings, which are now on display at the Westfries Museum, were discovered in the hands of a U
Museum on the central market square of Hoorn, Holland.
Museum on the central market square of Hoorn, Holland.

On Thursday morning, officials at the Westfries Museum here used crowbars to pry open wooden crates containing five Dutch Golden Age paintings that had been stolen from the museum more than a decade ago. The crates had been delivered early that morning from Ukraine, where they were discovered in the hands of an ultranationalist militia group last year.

“Finally, back where they belong,” said Ad Geerdink, the museum’s director, after the works were unpacked. “The only place they belong.”

The paintings — among 24 artworks worth a total of about 1.3 million euros, or $1.44 million — were stolen from the museum in 2005, along with 70 pieces of antique silver. They are by relatively unknown painters, including Jan van Goyen, Jan Linsen and Jacob Waben. The works are to go on display to the general public on Friday. Visitors will have free admission to the museum for the whole week to celebrate their return.

“For me it was an emotional thing, but especially for my colleagues who worked in the museum back then and experienced the robbery,” Geerdink said. He had seen the works in Kiev last month, when they were presented to him by Ukrainian officials at the Dutch embassy.

“Each of these paintings tell their own stories and when you add them all up, these works together tell the story of Hoorn in the Golden Age,” he said. “We are so glad that we can tell those stories again.”

The thieves had cut the paintings out of their original frames during the 2005 burglary, which took place in the middle of the night, and escaped out of the building undetected, leaving the empty frames hanging on the walls.

It is impossible to know exactly how they were handled over the years they traveled through the criminal underworld from the Netherlands to Ukraine, Geerdink said. Arthur Brand, a Dutch private investigator who was hired to search for the paintings, initially made contact with members of a Ukrainian militia group, the Battalion of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, who demanded a reward for their return.

He gave leads to the Ukrainian police officials, who were able to recover the works.

“Ukrainian authorities didn’t tell us anything about where they found them or who was in possession of the paintings,” Geerdink said, “maybe because the investigation is still going on. They assured me that they will continue the investigation.”

The museum’s lead restorer, Ronald de Jager, said that two canvases were in “terrible” condition, while the other three had fared “remarkably well,” considering that they seem to have been exposed to moisture while hidden.

He said he felt confident that the works could be fully restored.

The museum’s restoration team, led by de Jager, will take the works out of the museum to repair them in November, in a process likely to last about nine months. Following the restoration, all five works will be featured in an exhibition focused on the history of stolen art in 2017.

The cost of restoring the works would be upward of 100,000 euros (about $112,000), Geerdink said. The museum is initiating a crowdfunding campaign to raise 70,000 euros ($78,000) for the restoration from the public; it has already secured 21,000 euros from outside donors.

In the meantime, the museum is still searching for the rest of the paintings and silverware that were stolen.

“We have five back but we still have 19 to go,” Geerdink said.

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