THE HAGUE (AFP) - Two dozen 17th-century Dutch paintings stolen a decade ago have resurfaced in Ukraine, a Dutch museum revealed on Monday (Dec 7), warning that the works were in danger of being sold on the black market after its own efforts to retrieve them failed.
The 24 paintings by Jan Linsen, Jan van Goyen, Jacob Waben and other Dutch artists were taken when robbers broke into the Westfries Museum in the northwestern city of Hoorn in early 2005.
The robbers also stole 70 pieces of silverware before disappearing without a trace, the museum said in a statement.
Five months ago, two men claiming to be from the ultra-nationalist Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists militia entered the Dutch embassy in Kiev claiming to have stumbled upon the complete collection of paintings.
There was no mention of the silverware.
They said they had found the art in a villa in war-torn eastern Ukraine, where Kiev's forces are battling pro-Russian separatists.
As proof, the men showed a picture of one of the paintings alongside a recent Ukrainian newspaper edition, the Westfries Museum said.
"The men said they wanted to give back the paintings" but did not want Ukrainian authorities involved, according to the museum.
The Dutch government decided to give the city of Hoorn a chance to negotiate their return and employed an art historian who specialises in tracing stolen works to act as an intermediary.
But after meeting with the militia members, the expert, Arthur Brand, said "it was clear their estimate of the art was totally unrealistic," according to the museum.
"They wanted 50 million euros (S$76 million)."
While the paintings were valued at 10 million euros when they were stolen, Brand said that judging by the state of one of the paintings, the collection was now worth 500,000 euros at most.
The militia members then claimed a "finders' fee" of five million euros "and not a cent less," after which negotiations reached a dead end.
Fears that the works would next turn up on the stolen art circuit prompted the museum to go public with the saga.
"The reason for our revelation is that there are very strong indications the paintings are now being offered for sale to other parties," Westfries Museum director Ad Geerdink told a press conference.
"Some may even already have been sold." The museum said it hoped potential buyers would be warned as well as aware of the artworks' real value.
The museum however said the paintings are "priceless to us, as they tell the story about a fascinating time in West Friesland during the Golden Age."
Dutch Foreign Affairs Minister Bert Koenders said he had contacted Ukrainian officials at the "highest level" to get the paintings back.
"It's a bad situation and if the paintings are over there they should be returned as soon as possible," Koenders told the NOS public broadcaster.