(AFP): Two Van Gogh masterpieces stolen in Amsterdam 14 years ago have been recoved from the home of a notorious Italian drug boss near Naples, Italian and museum officials announced on Friday.
The 1882 "Seascape at Scheveningen" and 1884/85 "Congregation leaving the Reformed Church at Nuenen" were "recovered during a massive, continuing investigation... conducted by a specialised Italian prosecutions team investigating organised crime," the Van Gogh Museum said in a statement.
Italian investigators raided a home belonging to infamous drug baron Raffaele Imperiale, who was arrested 10 years ago at the same location at Castellammare di Stabia, some 34 kilometres (21 miles) southeast of Naples, a notorious hotspot for Neapolitan mafia activity.
Imperiale, who belongs to the Amato-Pagana clan, is believed to have subsequently fled to Dubai, where he owns a construction company, the Neapolitan edition of Italian daily La Republica reported. A new arrest warrant had been issued against him earlier this year, the newspaper added.
"The investigation confirms that criminal organisations are interested in art works that are both used as a form of investment as well as a source of funding," Italian Cultural Minister Dario Franceschini said.
- 'The real paintings!' -
Van Gogh Museum officials said they were overjoyed that the paintings had been recovered.
"The curator who inspected the authenticity and provenance of the works at the request of the Italian Public Prosecutions Department drew a firm conclusion: 'they are the real paintings!'," said the museum, which houses hundreds of paintings, drawings and sketches by Vincent van Gogh made up to his suicide in 1890.
Despite a 14-year journey, the two paintings "appear to be in fairly good condition," the museum said.
"But it can be assumed they were not preserved under suitable conditions" and their frames had been removed, the museum added.
Paint has also broken away from the bottom left corner of the "Seascape" painting.
Dutch police opened an international hunt back in 2002 after thieves apparently used a simple ladder and a length of rope to steal the two works, worth millions of dollars.
The criminals broke into the museum in downtown Amsterdam on December 7 that year using the ladder to climb onto the roof, where they broke through a window and used a rope to get in and out of the heavily fortified building.
The daring heist left Dutch police flabbergasted at the time. The paintings' whereabouts were unknown until being recovered in the Naples area, the Van Gogh Museum said.
"After all those years you no longer dare to count on a possible return," said the museum's director, Axel Rueger, who has travelled to Naples to view the missing Vincents.
"The paintings have been found. That I would ever be able to pronounce these words is something that I no longer dared to hope for," he said.
- 'Huge historical value' -
"The art historical value of the paintings for the collection is huge," said the museum.
"Seascape at Scheveningen" is the only painting in the museum's collection dating from Van Gogh's period in The Hague between 1881-83.
It's also one of only two seascapes that he painted during his years in The Netherlands and is a "striking example of Van Gogh's early style of painting, already showing his individual character".
The "Congregation leaving the Reformed Church at Nuenen" is a small canvas Van Gogh painted for his mother in early 1884 of the church where his father was the minister.
It was unclear when the paintings were to return to Amsterdam, as they were used as proof in an ongoing investigation in Italy, the museum said.
The Van Gogh Museum, which opened its doors to the public in 1973, is one of Amsterdam's best-visited attractions in the Dutch capital that gets some 17 million visitors every year.
The missing Van Goghs are not the only stolen Dutch masterpieces to have been recovered this year.
Ukraine earlier this month handed back five 17th and 18th-century masterpieces which disappeared from another Dutch museum on northwest Netherlands 11 years ago.