Dutch city celebrates as stolen masterpieces return home

 Employees carry a box containing stolen paintings during a ceremony to celebrate their return in Hoorn, The Netherlands, Oct 7, 2016.
Employees carry a box containing stolen paintings during a ceremony to celebrate their return in Hoorn, The Netherlands, Oct 7, 2016. PHOTO: EPA

HOORN, Netherlands (AFP) - The Dutch city of Hoorn erupted with joy on Friday (Oct 7) as it welcomed back five masterpieces recovered from a "criminal group" in Ukraine after being snatched from the town's museum in 2005.

"After 4,320 days... yes we counted the days... they are back!" an emotional museum director Ad Geerdink told hundreds of citizens who gathered at the Westfries Museum as the 17th and 18th-century paintings were unloaded from a truck.

"Our heritage has returned to the museum where they belong, back in the city where they belong," Geerdink said as the crowd cheered and clapped.

The five paintings were among 24 Dutch Golden Age masterpieces and 70 pieces of silverware stolen from the museum in the northwest city on Jan 9, 2005.

At the time of their disappearance, the 24 paintings were valued at a total of around €10 million (S$15.3 million).

One of the recovered works, Isaak Ouwater's 1784 piece entitled "Nieuwstraat in Hoorn", valued at around €30,000, was handed back by an unsuspecting Ukrainian art buyer in May. But details over how the painting came into his possession remain vague.

The four other retrieved paintings, which were also found in Ukraine, are: "A Peasant Wedding" by Hendrick Boogaert, "Kitchen Scene" by Floris van Schooten, "Return of Jephta" and "Lady World" by Jacob Waben.

The museum has now launched a crowdfunding campaign to restore the five works, as spokeswoman Christa van Hees said they "have suffered a lot" in the past decade and "are in a terrible condition."

Two of the paintings had been put back in frames, with lines clearly visible where they have been folded, an AFP reporter saw. The other canvases were still rolled up, but showed signs of cracks and paint was flaking off.

"I can't say how long it will take, but the aim is to have all of the paintings hanging in the museum within half a year," Ronald de Jager, who is tasked with the restoration, told AFP.

After the theft there was an intensive police investigation, but it was not until mid-2015 that the museum heard five paintings might be in Ukraine.

Two men claiming to represent a pro-Kiev group said they had found them in a villa in war-torn eastern Ukraine, where Kiev's forces were battling pro-Russian separatists.

Art historian Arthur Brand, who played a major role in the paintings' return, said the men initially priced the works at €50 million and then wanted €5 million for them.

"We were only prepared to give then €50,000, which is a finders' fee," Brand told AFP. So the negotiations collapsed.

Details remain unclear about the next moves, but after intense behind-the-scenes work involving Brand and the Hoorn municipality, Ukraine announced in April it had recovered four of the paintings.

It did not specify how the works were retrieved, saying only they had been "in the possession of criminal groups".

"What's more important is that we at least have some of them back," the museum's ticket sales manager, Karin van Hoorn, told AFP.

"When I saw them for the first time, a short while ago I was so overwhelmed I almost started crying."

The search continues for the works still missing.

"We are doing everything possible to get the other 19 paintings and our silverware back too," said Hoorn city council member Judith de Jong.