Ukranian art buyer hands back stolen Dutch masterpiece

The Hague (AFP) - A Ukranian art buyer has handed back a missing 18th-century painting stolen a decade ago from a Dutch museum, bringing the total number of masterpieces retrieved from the heist to five, officials said on Monday.

"A Ukranian resident returned one of the 24 paintings that were stolen from the Westfries Museum to the Dutch Embassy in Kiev," said Marieke van Leeuwen, spokeswoman for the Hoorn municipality in northwest Netherlands where the museum is based.

"The man had brought in the painting in good faith and with a certificate of authenticity," Van Leeuwen added in a statement.

He did not say how the buyer came into possession of the latest returned painting, Izaak Ouwater's 1784 piece entitled "Nieuwstraat in Hoorn", valued at around 30,000 euros ($33,400).

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

For years Hoorn's residents hoped that the stolen art would some day resurface.

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

Ukraine last month 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 Westfries Museum in December said the art is thought to be in the hands of an ultranationalist militia fighting pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine.

The Hoorn municipality hopes the five paintings, which are still in Ukraine, will be returned to the Netherlands soon.

Dutch government officials have filed an international application for the paintings' return.

"We hope to put them on display by the end of the summer, but first we need to see what restoration they would have to undergo," Van Leeuwen added.

Last July two men who identified themselves as members of the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) presented a picture of one of the stolen works to the Dutch embassy in Kiev, the museum said.

The men alleged they had found the entire missing collection -- containing works by landscape painter Jan van Goyen, among others -- in an abandoned villa in the conflict-wracked east.

Dutch media reported that the alleged OUN members had initially demanded 50 million euros for the paintings' return before dropping the price to 5 million euros.

The OUN later denied it was holding the art work, as Ukrainian authorities launched an investigation.

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