ROME (AP) — Police investigating suspected Italian mobsters for cocaine trafficking discovered two Van Gogh paintings hidden in a farmhouse near Naples, masterpieces that had vanished in 2002 during a nighttime heist at Amsterdam's Van Gogh Museum, authorities said Friday.
The two paintings were "considered among the artworks most searched for in the world, on the FBI's list of the Top 10 art crimes," Interior Minister Angelino Alfano said.
They were found in a farmhouse near Castellammare di Stabia as Italian police seized some 20 million euros ($22 million) worth of assets, including farmland, villas and apartments and a small airplane. Investigators contend those assets are linked to two Camorra drug kingpins, Mario Cerrone and Raffaele Imperiale, according to a statement by prosecutors Giovanni Colangelo and Filippo Beatrice.
The recovered masterpieces, propped up on easels, were unveiled for reporters Friday at a news conference in Naples. Museum director Axel Rueger said Italian investigators contacted the museum earlier in the week and art experts determined the paintings were 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."
With their frames removed and covered by cotton cloths, the paintings appeared to be in relatively good condition despite their long odyssey, the museum said.
One of the paintings, the 1882 "Seascape at Scheveningen," is one of Vincent Van Gogh's first major works. It depicts a boat setting off into a stormy sea, and the thick paint trapped grains of sand that blew up from the Dutch beach as Van Gogh worked on it over two days.
The other is a 1884-85 work, "Congregation leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen," which depicts a church in the southern Netherlands where the artist's father was the pastor. Experts believe it was done for Van Gogh's mother.
Despite the wishes of the museum, the paintings are not leaving Italy anytime soon. They are evidence in an investigation of whether gangsters from the Camorra crime syndicate were behind the original theft or might have become involved with the artworks later.
The Camorra is one of Italy's three largest organized crime syndicates, with the Calabria-based 'ndrangheta by far the most powerful. The Camorra consists of many crime clans, based in Naples as well as many of the Campania region's small towns.
Financial Police. Col. Giovanni Salerno said investigators looking into the syndicate's cocaine trafficking operations got a tip that the Camorra might have the Van Gogh artworks.
"One of those being investigated made some significant comments about their illegal investments made with earnings from drug trafficking, and he indicated two paintings of great value that supposedly were purchased by Imperiale. They were the result of a theft carried out in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam almost 14 years ago," Colangelo, the chief prosecutor in Naples, told reporters.
When renowned masterpieces are stolen, it's usually a theft commissioned by a private collector who has already agreed to buy them, since it's virtually impossible to sell them in the legitimate art market.
The Camorra and other Italian crime syndicates, awash in illegal revenues from drug trafficking, designer-goods counterfeiting and toxic waste dealings, are increasingly looking to launder their dirty profits and make even more money in the process.
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.
The museum said the paintings, inspected by a curator, do show "some damage." Authorities don't know where the paintings were kept in the 14 years since they were stolen by thieves who broke into the museum overnight and made off with the works from the main exhibition hall, where dozens of Van Gogh paintings were on display.
The seascape painting had some paint in the bottom left corner broken away, while the other painting had "a few minor damages at the edges of the canvas," a museum statement said.
Police who arrived at the Amsterdam museum on Dec. 7, 2002, discovered a 4.5-meter (15-foot) ladder leaning against the rear of the building.
The thieves had apparently climbed up to the second floor using a ladder and broke in through a window, according to Dutch police at the time. Within a year, Dutch authorities had arrested two suspects, but the paintings' whereabouts remained a mystery — until Italian authorities searched the farmhouse.
"After all these years, you no longer dare count on a possible return," Rueger said. "The paintings have been found! That I would be able to ever pronounce these words is something I had no longer dared to hope for."
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This story has been corrected to show that the museum director's first name is Axel, not Alex.