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Dutch city celebrates return of five stolen masterpieces

Five Golden Age masterpieces recovered from a "criminal gang" in Ukraine have returned to the Dutch city of Hoorn. The paintings were among the 24 works of art stolen from the city's museum in 2005.

"After 4,320 days… yes we counted the days… they are back," Ad Geerdink, director of the Westfries Museum in the northern Dutch city of Hoorn, told hundreds of people who gathered to celebrate the recovery.

"Our heritage has returned to the museum where they belong, back in the city where they belong," Geerdink told an emotional crowd.

At the time of their disappearance from the museum, the 24 paintings were valued at a total of around 10 million euros.

Isaak Ouwater's 1784 masterpiece entitled "Nieuwstraat in Hoorn" was handed back by a Ukrainian buyer in May and is worth 30,000 euros. The four other paintings were recovered from a "criminal group" in Ukraine. They retrieved paintings are: "A Peasant Wedding" by Hendrick Boogaert; "Kitchen Scene" by Floris van Schooten; "Return of Jephta" and "Lady World" by Jacob Waben.

Geerdink said the paintings "have suffered incredibly." The Museum is now crowd-funding to pay to restore the paintings.

The long search

In 2005, the Dutch police launched an investigation into the theft, but the museum authorities only heard about the five stolen paintings last year.

Two men claiming to represent a pro-Kiev group said they had discovered the paintings in a house in war-ravaged eastern Ukraine, where the government forces are battling pro-Russian rebels.

The men initially priced the works at 50 million euros and then five million euros, said art historian Arthur Brand, who played a major role in the recovery of the art works.

"We were only prepared to give then 50,000 euros, which is a finders' fee," Brand told the AFP news agency, adding that the negotiations eventually collapsed.

What happened after that remains unclear, but in April Ukrainian authorities announced they recovered four of the paintings.

"What's more important is that we at least have some of them back," the Westfries Museum's ticket sales manager, Karin van Hoorn, told AFP.

"When I saw them for the first time, a short while ago, I was so overwhelmed I almost started crying."

The search continues for the paintings still missing. "We are doing everything possible to get the other 19 paintings and our silverware back too," said Hoorn city council member Judith de Jong.

shs/bw (AFP, AP)

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