Friesland museum from which golden age artworks vanished in 2005 believes security service and far-right party also involved in attempt to sell canvases
A hoard of stolen Dutch golden age paintings is being offered for sale by an ultra-nationalist militia in Ukraine, according to the museum from which the works vanished a decade ago.
Detail from the painting Vanity by Jacob Waben, which was among the 24 works taken from the museum. Photograph: Westfries Museum/AP
The Westfries Museum in Hoorn, 50km north of Amsterdam, said on Monday it suspected members of the Ukrainian state security service, SBU, the far-right Svoboda (Freedom) party, and “art criminals with contacts ... at the highest political level” might also be involved in the attempt to sell the canvases.
The small provincial museum’s director, Ad Geerdink, said it was going public in a last-ditch effort to recover the 24 works, which were snatched along with 70 pieces of antique silverware in a burglary in January 2005.
“We have done all we can, but we’ve reached a dead end,” Geerdink said on the museum’s website. “The artworks risk disappearing from view once more, and we are sounding the alarm.” He also told De Telegraaf: “The clock is ticking. It is at one minute to midnight. Perhaps even one minute past midnight.”
Geerdink said the haul – which includes works by the Dutch masters Jan van Goyen, Hendrick Bogaert, Floris van Schooten and Jacob Waben – formed the core of the museum’s collection of 17th- and 18th-century art.
They were “of inestimable value to the story that our museum tells about the fascinating golden age period in West Friesland,” he said. “These artworks belong nowhere else but in Hoorn.”
The art historian Arthur Brand, Hoorn’s mayor Yvonne van Mastrigt and museum director Ad Geerdink at a press conference. Photograph: Olaf Kraak/AFP/Getty
The museum said it learned the paintings had surfaced in Ukraine in July, when two members of the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists – one of more than 50 militias opposing Russian incursions in eastern Ukraine – approached the Dutch embassy in Kiev.
The men claimed to possess the missing Westfries paintings, and offered a photograph of one – pictured alongside a copy of a recent Ukrainian newspaper – as proof. The militia would consider their return under certain conditions and in exchange for €50m (£36m), the men said.
Having exhausted diplomatic channels through the Dutch foreign ministry and enlisted the help of Interpol, also to no avail, the museum despatched an independent stolen art expert to Ukraine to negotiate directly on its behalf.
“The militiamen disappeared quite quickly, after a couple of meetings,” the expert, Arthur Brand, told a press conference on Monday. He said he did not know who stole the works, or how or when they reached Ukraine.
“I cannot reveal everything,” said Brand. “But members of the SBU are involved.”
Geerdink said the museum hoped that by revealing the stolen paintings’ whereabouts, potential buyers might be put off buying them.
“Our collection is in the hands of corrupt people, deep in the heart of the Ukrainian political elite,” he told De Telegraaf. “They refuse to give back these paintings and want only one thing: to earn illicit money from our cultural heritage.”
Brand said he suspected some of the paintings had already been sold. “First they offered us 24 works,” he said. “Then it was a few less. And now they only want to sell us 12.”
Priceless as they may be in West Friesland, the museum also warned the paintings were not worth quite as much as the nationalists seemed to think. Having initially demanded €50m for their return, the militia had now said it would settle for a “finders’ fee” of just €5m.
Based on prices fetched at auction by similar works from the same artists, however, Brand put the paintings’ real worth at no more than €1.3m – providing they were in good condition.
“Since that is not in fact the case,” the museum said in a statement, “the paintings’ actual value is estimated at around €500,000. We have offered the militiamen a small sum to cover their expenses, but have yet to hear back.”
Jon Henley, Dec.7, 2015, The Guardian