Tag Archives: stolen

Cocaine investigation leads to discovery of 2 Van Gogh paintings

Police investigating suspected Italian mobsters for cocaine trafficking discovered two Vincent 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 this past week.

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 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.”

Van Gogh's "Congregation leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen." — PHOTO: WikiArt
Van Gogh’s “Congregation leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen.” — PHOTO: WikiArt

Argentina’s ‘stolen babies’ seek truth, face ghosts

Pedro Sandoval stopped celebrating Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and even his own birthday after he found out the truth: The mom and dad he knew growing up had stolen him from his biological parents, who were kidnapped, tortured and never heard from again during Argentina’s 1976-1983 military dictatorship.

“I’m still jealous of friends who can hug or get into arguments with their parents,” said Sandoval, 38, alluding to the biological parents he never met. “But I’m also thankful that I could at least hug my grandfather and grandmother.”

Four decades after the ruling military junta launched a systematic plan to steal babies born to political prisoners, Argentina’s search for truth is increasingly focused on the 500 or so newborns whisked away and raised by surrogate families. Several hundred have yet to be accounted for.

This spring a visiting U.S. President Barack Obama and Argentine President Mauricio Macri announced, on the 40th anniversary of the coup that brought the junta to power, that Washington would open up a trove of U.S. intelligence files from Argentina’s Dirty War era, when an estimated 30,000 people were killed or forcibly “disappeared” by the regime. It may take a few years for the documents to be released, but the news gave families hope for word on the fate of other stolen babies.

For the children who have already been found, coming to grips with the past is a painful process.

Sandoval, known then as Alejandro Rei, never suspected anything was amiss growing up in a middle-class household on the outskirts of Buenos Aires. But in 2004, Victor Rei, a former border patrol officer and the man that Sandoval called his father, became the target of an investigation and his life turned upside down.

Sandoval said he felt both fury and crushing guilt after a childhood he describes as full of wonderful memories. And yet like others, he was torn over where his loyalties lay: At one point during the investigation Sandoval tried unsuccessfully to protect Rei by tainting DNA samples used to identify the older man.

“I made some mistakes,” he said. “It was part of a defense mechanism.”

Ultimately DNA matched Sandoval to Pedro Sandoval and Liliana Fontana, who were kidnapped by security forces in July 1977 when Liliana was two months pregnant. She gave birth to Pedro in captivity, and four months later he was taken away. His birth parents were never seen again.

“It’s still tough and bizarre,” Sandoval said. “But I found it beautiful that at least for four months I was in her arms.”

He has since severed ties with the people who raised him and has become close to relatives of his biological parents. His wife is expecting their first baby.

To date, 119 cases of stolen children have been resolved. Each discovery makes for banner headlines and prompts both personal and national soul-searching.

“These cases are moving because they are unique, painful and about suffering and trauma that doesn’t stop,” said Claudia Salatino, a psychologist who has treated some of the victims.

Guillermo Perez Roisinblit, 38, was Guillermo Gomez for decades before he was contacted by his biological sister and the Grandmothers of the Playa de Mayo, a human rights group that formed in 1977 to search for the disappeared. They showed him a family picture; Perez was shocked by his resemblance to the man who would later be confirmed as his real father.

“It took me 21 years to find my grandson and 15 years to win his love,” said Rosa de Roisinblit, 96, who is vice president of the Grandmothers.

“It was such a difficult process,” Perez said, sitting next to her.

Today both are plaintiffs in a trial that began last month against the former head of Argentina’s air force for the 1978 abduction and disappearance of activists Patricia Roisinblit and Jose Manuel Perez Rojo. Patricia gave birth to Perez at the Naval Mechanics School, where thousands of leftist dissidents were jailed and tortured during the Dirty War.

Francisco Gomez, the man who raised Perez, served time for stealing Perez when he was an infant and is now accused in the same trial involving the ex-air force chief, who is charged in the kidnapping of Perez’s parents.

Perez said he visited Gomez in prison in 2003, and Gomez angrily blamed him for his confinement.

“When I get out,” Perez recalled Gomez saying, “I’m going to put a bullet in your forehead, in your two grandmothers and in your sister.”

During the dictatorship, the Grandmothers marched weekly at Buenos Aires’ main square to demand the return of their loved ones. Since Argentina’s return to democracy, they have lobbied the government to create a DNA database and dedicate judicial resources to the search.

“They’re the closest to real heroes,” Perez said. “They fought against a dictatorship risking their own lives. … And that’s how I see my grandmother, as a hero.”

 

30 years after heist, museum hopes to get piece back

An empty wooden frame once occupied by Willem de Kooning’s “Woman-Ochre” sits at the center of a gallery at the University of Arizona’s Museum of Art in Tucson. 

Next to it are the composite drawings of two people police say stole the painting the day after Thanksgiving in 1985. The museum wants to remind visitors of the heist in hopes that a new lead in the 30-year unsolved mystery will appear. 

“We have not given up hope about getting the painting back,” Gina Compitello-Moore, the museum’s marketing director, said. “By not having it, it’s almost as if a member of our family is missing.”

The painting by the abstract expressionist was stolen on Nov. 29, 1985 from the small museum that also has works by Jackson Pollock and Georgia O’Keeffe. 

The museum had just opened when a man and a woman walked in. They were the sole visitors. The woman, described as being in her mid-50s with shoulder-length reddish and blond hair, distracted the a security guard by making small-talk while the man, who appeared to be in his 20s and wore a mustache and glasses, cut the painting from the large frame, leaving the edges of the canvass attached. 

Within minutes, they were gone, taking with them one of the museum’s most important pieces. The painting was valued at about $600,000 when it was stolen. 

“We have no idea why this particular painting was stolen. It could have been the size of the work. It could have been that this is probably his most recognized work,” Compitello-Moore said.

Brian Seastone, the university’s police chief, was an officer back then who helped investigate the heist. He says the department, along with the FBI and other agencies working the theft, received a number of tips that led them nowhere. 

“The gentleman pretty much knew what he wanted, it appeared, and went upstairs. And after a few minutes they both left very quickly and it drew the attention of the security officer who was there,” Seastone said. “Since then, it’s kind of become not a legend but one of those things that’s out there that people will talk about once in a while.” 

Seastone says the man’s mustache and glasses may have been fake, an effort to disguise himself, and that the woman also may have been in costume.

Compitello-Moore said now is a good time to bring attention to the stolen painting because it could have changed hands by now, and its owner could not know they have a stolen piece. 

“We’re happy to have to have the frame in there but we of course wish it were the painting,” she said.

Political dirty tricks? 400 gnomes missing in Austria

A leading Austrian political party issued a garden gnome alert after 400 of its figurines disappeared from lamp posts used in campaigning.

Placed by the Socialist Party ahead of elections in western Austria, the gnomes were hung about 3 yards from the ground — presumably in part to prevent mass pilfering.

But a party statement said that 400 gnomes, valued at around $4,000, had gone missing over the weekend.

The party suspects the heists were less outright theft and more dirty electioneering, accusing the rival conservative People’s Party of being behind the disappearances.  It notes that some of the gnomes have been replaced by People’s Party posters.

The People’s Party denies involvement in the gnome scandal.

Catnapping still under investigation, but missing hotel cat found

The beloved hotel cat that was snatched over the weekend in Fort Collins, Colo., has been found safe but scared.

Two Armstrong Hotel guests found Oreo on March 18 crying out from behind an art museum about a block away.

Hotel general manager Nick Gliszinski says Oreo’s return marks the end of a citywide search for the famed feline, but authorities are still trying to find the perpetrators.

According to the Fort Collins Coloradoan, videos showed two men catnapping Oreo from the hotel lobby on Saturday.

Oreo first came to the hotel in 2004. Since then, she has warmed her way into the hearts of hotel guests and owners.

Jewish group demands return of all Nazi-looted art

Germany must make a stronger effort to identify and return thousands of looted art pieces the Nazis took from Jews, the president of the World Jewish Congress said this week as he met with top government officials in Berlin to push his case.

Ronald Lauder told The Associated Press that Nazi-looted art still hangs in German museums, government offices and private collections. He said the country’s legislation needs to be changed in order to facilitate its return.

The art pieces stolen from the Jews “are the last prisoners of World War II,” Lauder said. “They should be returned to the victims of the Holocaust and their heirs.”

The topic became the focus of attention in Germany and abroad after the 2012 discovery of more than 1,400 artworks in the Munich apartment of Cornelius Gurlitt, the son of a Nazi-era art dealer.

Some of the paintings, drawings and prints are claimed by the heirs of former owners persecuted by the Nazis. The affair prompted fresh scrutiny of how Germany handles disputes over Nazi-looted art.

Lauder, who was to hold closed-door meetings with Germany’s justice and foreign ministers to push for new solutions, called on Germany to eliminate its 30-year statute of limitations on stolen property cases, a major stumbling block in many restitution cases since World War II ended almost 70 years ago.

He also called for the establishment of an international commission that would research and help return the artworks to families of the original owners. Such a body “should have real power, so that museums that have avoided transparency up until now, will be required to do the research under its auspices in accordance with international standards,” he said.

Already on Wednesday, Monica Gruetters, the government’s top cultural affairs official, said Germany wants to double state funding for the hunt for Nazi-looted art, which since 2008 has amounted to (euro) 14.5 million ($19.7 million).

Gruetters told lawmakers it was “unbearable that there is still Nazi-looted art in German museums.”

She pledged to create a central point of contact for claimants to avoid the impression that German officials were trying to duck responsibility.

The German government also in 2003 created a commission can be called on if the ownership of a piece of art stolen or sold during the Nazi period is disputed. While the Limbach Commission’s recommendations are non-binding, they are almost always adopted. The government also installed a task force to look into the origins of the paintings and drawings recently found in Gurlitt’s Munich apartment.