Stolen Van Gogh paintings returned to museum General Gianluigi D'Alfonso of the Italian Guardia Di Finanza, Jet Bussemaker, Minister for Education, Culture and Science and Van Gogh Museum director Axel Rueger, from left, pose in front of two stolen and recovered van Gogh paintings during a press conference in Amsterdam, Netherlands, Tuesday, March 21, 2017. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)
Stolen Van Gogh paintings returned to museum
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The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam has welcomed home two paintings by the Dutch master. They were stolen more than 14 years ago. They were ripped off the museum's wall. This was during a nighttime heist.
 
"They're back," said museum director Axel Rueger. He called their return one of the "most special days in the history of our museum."
 
The paintings are the 1882 "View of the Sea at Scheveningen" and 1884-85 work "Congregation leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen." They were discovered last year by Italian police. They were investigating suspected Italian mobsters.
 
It wasn't an easy find. The two paintings were wrapped in cotton sheets. They were stuffed in a box. Then they were hidden behind a wall in a toilet. That is according to Gen. Gianluigi D'Alfonso. He is with the Italian financial police. D'Alfonso was on hand at the museum March 21 to watch the ceremonial unveiling.
 
The paintings were found in a farmhouse near Naples. Italian police seized some 20 million euros worth of assets. They included villas, apartments and even a small airplane.
 
"After years shrouded in darkness, they can now shine again," said Jet Bussemaker. He is the Dutch minister for education, culture and science. An orange screen slid away to reveal the two paintings behind a glass wall.
 
Italy's Interior Minister Angelino Alfano said last year the paintings were "considered among the artworks most searched for in the world."
 
The recovered paintings soon will be taken to its conservation studio. Fortunately, they only had a little damage. The thieves had clambered up a ladder and smashed a window to get into the museum. That was in 2002. The paintings were ripped out of their frames.
 
"It is not only a miracle that the works have been recovered. But it's even more miraculous almost that they are in relatively unharmed condition," Rueger said.
 
The museum director was on vacation when the call came last year from Italian authorities. The police believed they had recovered the paintings. Rueger didn't celebrate right away. That is because he'd had calls like this before.
 
"I was hopeful but also a little hesitant. We had multiple occasions when people phoned us, contacted us, claiming that they knew something about the whereabouts of the works. And each time it was false, the trace went cold," he said.
 
Museum experts were sent to Italy to check the authenticity of the works. They quickly turned Rueger's doubts into delight.
 
"It was something we had secretly been hoping for for all those years," he said.
 
The two small works are not typical of Van Gogh's later and better-known works. But they are still vital pieces for the museum's collection, Rueger said.
 
The Scheveningen seascape features a fishing boat and rough sea under a typically gray, cloudy Dutch sky. It is one of Van Gogh's earliest works. It is the only painting in the museum's collection painted during his time in The Hague. It suffered a missing rectangular chip from the bottom left-hand corner.
 
The painting of the church in Nuenen portrayed the village where his parents lived.
 
"He had painted it as a gift to his mother. So it's a very personal and emotional connection," Rueger said.
 
Rueger said the paintings are now back for good at the museum. It is home to dozens of works by Van Gogh. His paintings fetch millions of dollars on the rare occasions they come up for auction.
 
"I'm very confident that everything is safe in the museum," he said.

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