Dutch police recover eight masterpieces missing for 22 years
A painting by Jan Brueghel in Driebergen, Netherlands. The paintings were recovered they were offered for sale
David Charter, Europe Correspondent
Eight missing masterpieces, including works by Renoir and Pissarro, have been recovered by Dutch police in a sting operation 22 years after they were reported stolen from one of Europe’s top art dealers.
The trail had gone cold after the 17th and 19th-century paintings vanished from Robert Noortman’s prestigious gallery in Maastricht in 1987 – netting the dealer an insurance payout of 5 million guilders (£2 million).
In December an alleged middleman in Dubai made contact to try to sell the canvases back to the insurance company via a private detective who was originally hired to investigate the theft two decades earlier.
The detective, Ben Zuidema, said that he was contacted out of the blue by a man wanting to sell the paintings back to the insurers for €5 million (£4.5 million). Included in the offer was €1 million for Mr Zuidema to facilitate the deal.
“Immediately I passed information to the investigators,” said the private detective. “Since then I have co-operated with them to find the paintings.” A sting was arranged with the police for the canvases to be handed over for €1 million, according to reports in the Dutch media.
The Dutch National Prosecutor’s Office said that this led to the recovery of the paintings by David Teniers, Willem van de Velde, Jan Brueghel the Younger, Eva Gonzalès, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Camille Pissarro and Paul-Desiré Trouillebert.
Two of the pictures were said to be badly damaged after having been folded. Six were found in the southern Dutch town of Valkenburg and two more in the nearby village of Walem.
Prosecutors said in a statement that three suspects have been arrested: a 45-year-old German man who lives in Dubai, his 62-year-old mother from Belgium and a 66-year-old man from Walem. All three suspects, whose identities were not released, were due to appear in court tomorrow.
The fate of a ninth missing masterpiece from the same collection is still unknown, but Mr Zuidema has told police that he believes it was destroyed by Mr Noortman.
Mr Zuidema has told the Dutch news agency Algemeen Nederlands Persbureau that he had suspicions all along about the gallery owner, who died two years ago.
It reported Mr Zuidema as saying that, after his own investigation, he concluded that Mr Noortman was likely to have been involved in the disappearance of the paintings.
“I shared my findings about him with the police in Maastricht,” he is reported to have said. “But in the end it did not lead to the finding of the paintings.” The insurance bounty was paid out to Mr Noortman, who had acquired the works and insured them for their full market value shortly before the disappearance.
According to the private detective, Mr Noortman at the time said: “Stolen is sold.” No one was available for comment from Noortman Master Paintings in Maastricht about Mr Zuidema’s allegations. Mr Noortman, who died aged 60 in 2007, became one of Europe’s most powerful art dealers and was a benefactor of the National Gallery in London, which houses its Dutch masterpeices in the Noortman Room.
Mr Zuidema is sticking by his claims, according to ANP. “This is how it went and this is what I will say under oath in court,” he told them.