Missing Van Gogh paintings turn up in Italian mafia country house

Fri Sep 30, 2016 12:46pm EDT
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By Toby Sterling and Steve Scherer

AMSTERDAM/ROME (Reuters) - Two stolen Vincent Van Gogh paintings worth millions of euros were found in an Italian country house belonging to an alleged mafia drug smuggler, police said on Friday, 14 years after they disappeared in a daring heist in Amsterdam.

Italian investigators displayed the recovered artworks - a sea scene and a church where the painter's father was minister - to reporters in Naples, saying each was worth an estimated 50 million euros ($56 million).

"It is a great day for us today to see the works and to know that they are safe and that they are in safe hands," said Axel Ruger, director of Amsterdam's Van Gogh museum, who was present when the paintings were shown to reporters.

"We may have to be a bit patient, but we hope that we will have them soon back where they belong," he said, adding the museum would respect Italian legal procedures.

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, a source in Renzi's office said.

The paintings were found wrapped in cloth inside a safe in a country house south of Naples that prosecutors said belonged to Raffaele Imperiale, a 41-year-old businessman accused in January of running an international cocaine trafficking ring together with high-ranking mobsters from a clan made famous in the 2008 film "Gomorra".

Imperiale is a fugitive and Italian investigators suspect he is living and running a construction business in Dubai. But the arrests of 11 members of his alleged ring in January, including one man who turned state's witness, led investigators to the paintings.

Along with the artworks, which Naples prosecutor Giovanni Colangelo said were probably purchased with drug proceeds, police seized a small airplane, boats, 49 properties, and 88 bank accounts worth some 20 million euros.   Continued...

Director of Amsterdam's Van Gogh Museum Axel Ruger poses next to a painting by the Dutch artist Vincent Van Gogh, that was stolen in Amsterdam 14 years ago, during a news conference in Naples September 30, 2016. REUTERS/Ciro De Luca