€10m Dutch paintings stolen 10 years ago being held 'to ransom' by Ukrainian militia
A collection of stolen Dutch masterpieces dating from the country's 17th-century Golden Age has been discovered in a villa in rebel-held eastern Ukraine 10 years after they were stolen, a museum said on Monday.
The 24 paintings, valued at €10m when they went missing in 2005, reappeared in July when two men approached the Dutch embassy in the Ukrainian capital Kiev offering to sell them back.
De Telegraaf newspaper said two Dutch stolen art investigators had found out they were in the hands of an "ultra-nationalist militia" in eastern Ukraine that wanted five million euros for them.
"But we only wanted to pay them for their expenses, since these paintings are the legal property of the museum, so it's not for them to hold or sell the paintings," said Ad Geerdink, director of the Westfries Museum in Hoorn, north of Amsterdam, the original owner of the masterpieces.
He said the museum was making the information public now out of concern that the paintings, including works by painters Jan van Goyen and Hendrik Bogaert, were in danger.
"There are very strong signs that the paintings are now being offered to other parties or have even been sold," Geerdink said. "Given the paintings' fragile condition, it is already one minute to midnight, or even one past midnight."
The thieves who carried out the audacious heist hid in the museum before closing time on a winter evening and disabled the museum's alarm system before making off with the artworks.
The discovery of the paintings could add to the diplomatic complexities surrounding a collection of priceless gold artefacts from Crimea that were on loan to an Amsterdam museum when Russia annexed the peninsula from Ukraine in March 2014.
The Kiev government and several museums in Crimea have since been locked in legal disputes in Dutch courts over who owns the ancient objects.
There is no suggestion that their fate is linked to that of the Westfries Museum's paintings.