Lost and found: 5 pieces of Dutch Golden Age art have been recovered after a 10 year hunt

Story highlights

In January 2005, 24 paintings and 70 pieces of silverware were stolen from the Westfries Museum in Hoorn, Netherlands

Investigators have retrieved five of the paintings, which were found on the black market in Ukraine

CNN  — 

Five artworks from the Dutch Golden Age are finally returning to their rightful place, more than a decade after they disappeared into the shadowy depths of the illicit art market.

The works belong to the Westfries Museum, located in the Dutch maritime town of Hoorn, where they will be unveiled on October 7 – a far cry from Ukraine, where the paintings were uncovered.

A new deal

In January 2005, thieves are thought to have hidden inside a coffin on display inside the museum before disabling the security system and taking off with 24 paintings and 70 pieces of silverware. It was the bulk of the museum’s 17th and 18th century collection, worth approximately 1.3 million euros ($1.45 million).

With no solid leads, it was feared the paintings would never be traced. But in July 2015, the museum’s director, Ad Geerdink, received word that someone from a Ukrainian militia force, a man named Borys Humeniuk, had made contact with the Dutch embassy in Kiev.

A deputy commander from the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, Humeniuk claimed to have found the paintings, and said he was willing to hand them over.

“He said his battalion had found all 24 painting in a villa belonging to former president Viktor Yanukovych while fighting Russian separatists in the east of the country,” claimed Geerdink.

It was now a question of what Humeniuk wanted in return. At this point, the museum enlisted the help of Dutch art historian and art crime investigator Arthur Brand.

From the start Brand knew the issue would be money.

“If you have stolen paintings in your possession, of course you can ask for a reward,” said Brand. “But if you ask, you have to accept the reward that is there. If you do not, then you’re engaging in a criminal act.”

Meeting in Kiev – and armed with official valuations – Brand told Humeniuk that in its badly damaged state, the entire collection was worth not millions, but around 500,000 euros ($560,000), and offered a finders fee of 50,000 euros ($56,000).

“Humeniuk said he would talk with his soldiers, but I saw in his eyes that it was the end of any deal,” said Brand.

An illegal art market

With 15 years of experience in the illicit art trade, not much surprises Brand anymore. He’s recovered well over 200 works of art, including ancient Aztec artifacts, antique porcelain plates and numerous paintings looted by the Nazis.

In one of his most high profile cases, Brand aided German police in the retrieval of a pair of bronze horse sculptures by Josef Thorak that once belonged to Adolf Hitler.

According to Interpol, it’s almost impossible to put a financial figure on the illicit art trade, although the FBI and the US Department of Justice have called it the third highest-grossing criminal trade in the world after drugs and arms.