Ukrainian ultranationalists hold stolen Dutch paintings for ransom – museum

Westfries Museum. © Wikipedia
Dutch art investigators and officials are trying to extract a batch of 17th century paintings stolen from a Friesland museum. The collection is being held for ransom by Ukrainian ultranationalist militants, the museum claims.

The 23 artworks were stolen from the Westfries Museum in Hoorn, Friesland, in 2005. They emerged in Ukraine earlier this year, but they are not going home, since they are being held hostage by members of an ultranationalist 'volunteer battalion,' the museum's website states.

The collection includes paintings by Golden Age artists Jan van Goyen and Hendrik Bogaert. Their whereabouts were unknown for the past decade. The criminals initially demanded some €50 million for the paintings, museum officials say, but the real value is €1.3 million at most, and given the likely poor condition of the pieces, could be as low as €500,000. Still, the gang demand at least €5 million as a 'finder's fee.’

Matthias Withoos. De Grashaven. Stolen from Westfries Museum in 2005. © Wikipedia

In January 2015, museum’s curator Ad Geerdink finally found that the stolen painting ended up in the hands of a Ukrainian ultranationalist group with connections at the very top of Ukrainian establishment.

“Our collection is in the hands of corrupt people who go right up to the top of Ukrainian politics,” Westfries Museum director Ad Geerdink told Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf. “They are refusing to return the pictures and only want one thing: to earn hard cash at the expense of our cultural heritage.”

'Volunteer battlaion' is a term used for armed paramilitary groups that the Ukrainian government has been deploying to pacify the uprising in the eastern part of the country. These groups have been accused by OSCE observers on numerous occasions of atrocities, including kidnappings, attacks on civilians and torture.

Dutch art investigator Arthur Brand, specializing in recovering art objects looted by Nazis, and his colleague Alex Omhoff alleged to the newspaper that Ukrainian secret services were involved in the plot as well.

Brand also told the Dutch broadcaster Nos that he personally met with the leader of the far-right militants, but failed to find common ground.
An unnamed Ukrainian warlord established contact with the Dutch embassy in Kiev last summer, attempting to bargain over a price of the stolen artworks.

Dutch Foreign Minister Albert Gerard ‘Bert’ Koenders and his diplomats immediately contacted the Ukrainian foreign ministry and President Petro Poroschenko, asking for assistance.

“We’ve said we need their help badly,” Koenders told NOS. “It’s a very bad business if they’re over there: they need to come back.”

In a desperate attempt to retrieve them, curator Ad Geerdink issued a public appeal in English for the paintings to be returned, also urging to deter any attempts to re-sell the pieces.

The paintings are “part of our history and our cultural heritage and they belong here,” he said, but his pleas did not avail him.

Today, practically a year after the lost paintings were located, they still remain in Ukraine. Neither the Ukrainian president, nor country’s foreign ministry have been able to handle the situation and make the ultranationalists to return the stolen works of art.