Stolen Van Goghs Home at Last

AMSTERDAM.- After an absence of 14 years, the two paintings by Van Gogh that were feared lost are again on display in the Van Gogh Museum. The works were stolen from the collection in 2002 by thieves who needed only a few minutes for the entire operation.

The theft was a major blow to the art world.

Last September, a team from the Italian Guardia di Finanza stumbled upon the two paintings during a house search in the vicinity of Naples.

Thanks to the concerted efforts of the Italian and Dutch authorities, the works could be released relatively soon and begin their journey back to the Netherlands. Starting today, they have resumed their place in the museum’s collection and are on display in the state in which they were found, without their frames.

"he homecoming of the recovered paintings means that our collection is once again complete, and we can close the door on this particularly painful period in our history. I’ve been looking forward tremendously to the day when we could again show these two gems to our public," director Axel Rüger, pictured here with the two works, said with a broad smile.

Little Damage

Initial examination has shown that the works have suffered relatively little damage.

Apart from a small area of visible damage to the canvas View of the Sea at Scheveningen, the Van Goghs are in reasonably good condition. The most obvious damage was caused immediately after the robbery, when one of the thieves removed the frames.

Presumably they were not tossed around very much during the years that followed. In fact, they seem to have been left in peace behind the double wall where they were found, in the house occupied by the parents of Camorra chief Raffaele Imperiale.

Today the returned paintings will receive a festive welcome from the outgoing Minister of Culture, Jet Bussemaker, and museum director Axel Rüger. The works will be on display until 14 May, after which they will go to the restoration studio for examination and treatment.

Feared Lost But Recovered

Last year members of a specialist team of the Italian Guardia di Finanza, also in photograph, stumbled upon the two stolen works while searching one of the houses belonging to the fugitive Neapolitan mafioso, Raffaele Imperiale.

This put an end, in September 2016, to many years of uncertainty as to the condition and whereabouts of the paintings, which had been missing from the Van Gogh Museum since 2002.

14 Years of Wondering

It was long feared that the works had suffered considerable damage. The recovered paintings appear to be in reasonably good condition, however.

The relatively minor damage is all the more remarkable given that both paintings were forcibly removed from their frames after the theft, in the course of which View of the Sea at Scheveningen was damaged by one of the thieves.

The canvas Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen, above left, seems at first glance to be unharmed, apart from slight damage to the edges in a few places and some scratches in the layer of varnish.

The work View of the Sea at Scheveningen suffered more damage: a piece of the paper support – and therefore a significant part of the depiction – is missing in the lower left-hand corner.

This piece of paper was torn off when the work was forcibly removed from its frame. Small pieces of paint have chipped off in several places along the edge. In fact, this work had already had an eventful past, marked by intensive restorations and new ‘relinings’. During the latter interventions, the work on its original paper support was ironed onto a canvas, using a paste made of wax and resin, which was applied with a great deal of heat and pressure – a technique that is no longer used.

Gems in the Collection

The two paintings from Van Gogh’s early period are small gems that have a lot of added value for the museum’s collection. Their return therefore fills glaring gaps in the presentation.

View of the Sea at Scheveningen (1882), originally painted on paper, is one of the first works Van Gogh made without the supervision of his teacher, Anton Mauve. In the preceding years he had devoted himself almost exclusively to drawing and had done little painting.

Given his still-scant experience, the canvas is strikingly forceful. Even though the brushwork is fairly coarse and the simple, drawn figures distributed rather haphazardly over the beach, the space and the approaching storm are aptly characterized.

Van Gogh painted the Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen in 1884, when he was living with his parents in Nuenen in the province of Brabant. The canvas was intended for his mother, who had broken her leg early that year.

The choice of subject, the church of the Reverend van Gogh, suggests that Vincent hoped his father would take pleasure in the work as well. X-radiographs show that Van Gogh touched up the foreground and other passages too, probably a year later, in 1885. He painted figures in front of the church door and applied autumnal colors to the bare winter trees and hedges. Only the church, the sky and some of the trees remained unchanged.

In the foreground Van Gogh painted women wearing long mourning shawls, perhaps a reference to his own grieving process and thus to the death of his father, who died on 26 March 1885. In addition to its art-historical importance, therefore, this work is clearly of biographical value as well.