Two missing paintings by Vincent Van Gogh have recently been miraculously recovered after 14 long years of searching. Stolen in 2002 during a raid on the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, the paintings “Seascape at Scheveningen” (1882) and “Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen” (1884-85) were considered to be among the most searched for artworks in the world. Both pieces were on the FBI’s list of the “Top 10 Art Crimes.”
Thieves had broken into the Van Gogh Museum by making it past the guards and infrared security system through the use of ladders and sledgehammers to steal the two paintings. The 14-year search finally ceased at the end of September after Italian police found the paintings in an old farmhouse in the seaside town of Castellammare di Stabia, near Pompeii. A curator inspected the paintings and has firmly concluded that they are, in fact, the stolen originals.
The paintings were recovered as part of a larger investigation by the Guardia di Finanza team, which is an Italian law enforcement agency that specializes in organized crime. The team suspects the culprits to be part of the Camorra, an Italian mafia-style crime organization. The paintings were seized along with 20 million euros worth of assets, which were rumored to have been held by two drug kingpins.
The Camorra is one of the three largest crime syndicates in Italy, and they are always looking for ways to launder their illegal revenues. Specific information has yet to be released regarding the farmhouse where the paintings were found, and the case remains under investigation.
Thankfully, the paintings are in surprisingly good condition. They were found propped up on easels, removed from their frames and covered with a cotton cloth. “Seascape at Scheveningen” is the more damaged of the two, with a portion of the paint chipped away from the bottom left corner.
The museum, however, is just relieved that the paintings were returned at all. Axel Rüger, director of the Van Gogh Museum, admitted that even he had begun to lose hope in ever recovering them.
“The paintings have been found!” Rüger said. “That I would be able to ever pronounce these words is something I had no longer dared to hope for.”
These two paintings each hold a unique artistic significance. “Seascape at Scheveningen” is the only piece in the Van Gogh Museum from that specific time period. It’s one of his first major works and one of only two seascapes he painted during his time in the Netherlands. On the canvas are actual grains of sand from the Dutch beach, which blew onto the wet paint as he painted it over the course of two days. Its return fills an important gap in the collection.
The “Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen” holds more of a biographical and emotional value regarding Van Gogh himself. It’s a smaller piece that he painted for his mother, depicting the church where his father was minister. After his father’s death, Van Gogh reworked the painting, adding funeral mourners in the foreground.
The museum rejoices at the discovery of the missing paintings; it will be some time, however, before they are returned to their rightful places in the gallery. For now, they must remain in Italy as evidence for the continuing investigation of the Camorra’s illegal activities. The time of the trial has not yet been announced, but Rüger says the museum is willing to wait: “Naturally the only thing you want is to take them straight home with you. We will have to exercise a little bit more patience, but I am convinced that we can count on the support of the Italian authorities.”