Ukraine hands back stolen Dutch masterpieces

Ukraine hands back stolen Dutch masterpieces

The Hague (AFP) - Five stolen 17th and 18th-century masterpieces were handed back to the Netherlands on Friday, foreign ministry officials said, and will soon return to a Dutch museum from where they disappeared 11 years ago.

"Ukrainian authorities have handed over five Dutch paintings to the Westfries Museum. The handover has just taken place at the Dutch embassy in Kiev," the ministry said in a statement.

Twenty-four Dutch Golden Age masterpieces and 70 pieces of silverware were stolen from the Westfries Museum in the northwest town of Hoorn on the night of January 9, 2005.

At the time of their disappearance, the paintings were valued at a total of 10 million euros ($11 million).

Ukraine in April announced it had recovered four of the paintings, but it did not give details of how the works were retrieved, saying only they were "in the possession of criminal groups".

The four paintings are: "A Peasant Wedding" by Hendrick Boogaert, "Kitchen Scene" by Floris van Schooten, "Return of Jephta" and "Lady World" by Jacob Waben.

A fifth painting, Isaak Ouwater's 1784 piece entitled "Nieuwstraat in Hoorn", valued at around 30,000 euros ($33,400), was handed back by an unsuspecting Ukrainian art buyer in May, but details over how he came into possession of the artwork remain vague.

The Westfries Museum said in December the 24 missing paintings were thought to be in the hands of an ultranationalist militia fighting the pro-Russian insurgency in east Ukraine.

"At this point it's impossible to say where the other missing paintings are or how long it would take to get them back," the foreign ministry said.

Handing over the paintings, Ukraine's General Prosecutor Yuriy Lutsenko said he was "very pleased to be in this embassy not for the purpose of laying flowers because of a downed airliner," referring to the MH17 air disaster, when a jetliner mainly carrying Dutch passengers was shot down over Ukraine's war-torn east in July 2014.

"Masterpieces should bring pleasure not to the... thieves, but to all mankind," Lutsenko said, who was accompanied by Ukraine's SBU National Security Service's deputy head Mikhaillov Glukovski.

The museum, which has previously voiced concern about the paintings' condition, said they would be "festively" returned to Hoorn on October 7.

Museum director Ad Geerdink said the paintings, particularly "A Peasant Wedding" and "Kitchen Scene", were in bad condition.

"Luckily they can still be restored, but it will be a time-consuming effort," Geerdink said in a statement, estimating restoration costs to be as much as 100,000 euros ($111,000).

"As a museum, we are not able to bear these costs ourselves. We therefore hope that people will help us with the restoration by joining a crowd-funding campaign," he said.

Dutch Foreign Minister Bert Koenders said he was "delighted that the paintings are being returned."

"A lot of hard work has been done to make this possible," Koenders added.

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