Four decades after the largest art robbery in the history of the former German Democratic Republic (GDR), the five stolen paintings are back in the museum in Gotha and were presented to the public on Monday.
Back in 1979, five works of old masters, such as Hans Holbein the Elder, had been stolen from the Gotha Castle Museum. With the help of crampons, unknown thieves had entered the museum and took the paintings, including the frames.
The Friedenstein Gotha Catle Foundation noted that a lawyer who claimed to act on behalf of the anonymous owners of the paintings made contact back in July 2018. After months of negotiations the paintings were handed over and were checked for authenticity.
The scientific investigations confirmed the authenticity of the stolen paintings, which were identified as originals by features such as their radiographically recorded interior condition, the foundation noted. The reverse side of the paintings also showed traces of their history, like old inventory numbers.
Back in January 1980, the value of the paintings was estimated at 4.5 million German marks. Their current insurance value is estimated at four million euros (4.4 million U.S. dollars), according to the foundation.
"The idealistic value of the paintings is, however, inestimable for Gotha, as they are works from the former princely collection, which are inseparably connected with the history of the city and the state of Thuringia," the foundation noted.
"The unexpected return of the paintings after 40 years is a great stroke of luck," said Bodo Ramelow, minister president of Thuringia. "Important masterpieces of great art historical value are returning."
According to the foundation, a written agreement had been made with the vendors of the paintings and the foundation had been acknowledged as owners. No money had been paid for the return of the paintings.
The actual theft was time-barred, however, the Berlin public prosecutor's office opened an investigation "against several people on suspicion of extortion and these investigations are not yet completed," Rene Allonge from the state criminal police office in Berlin told the German broadcaster mdr on Friday.
The paintings are presented to the public this week in a special exhibition. Following their restoration, a further exhibition is planned for next year.