Dutch art sting with a twist

A businessman who had been working in Dubai is accused of being involved in an art theft from 22 years ago.

Driebergen, Netherlands. Stolen and damaged painting by Paul Desirere Trouillebert "Landscape with fisherman at a water mill" (please note that there are accents on the spelling of this French name) shown at a police press conference.  Courtesy Rien Zilvold
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A business executive who had been based in Dubai was being held in a Dutch jail last night after being accused of taking part in the theft of works by some of the art world's biggest names. The man, 45, who once headed the Dubai office of one of the world's largest conference management companies, was arrested during a police sting in the Netherlands with his 62-year-old mother, from Plombières in Belgium, and an unidentified 66-year-old man from Walem in the Netherlands. All three are due to appear before a court in Rotterdam today. The hearing will be in private. The arrests come as the latest twist in a complex tale that began more than 20 years earlier with the theft of nine paintings dating from the 17th to 19th centuries. The paintings include works by Pissarro and Renoir, and had apparently been stolen from one of the world's top art dealers, Robert Noortman. The Dutchman awoke one February morning in 1987 to find that thieves had broken into his gallery on the outskirts of Maastricht and escaped with paintings including La Clairière, by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Bouquet de Fleurs, by Eva Gonzales, and Bords de la Seine à Bougival, by Camille Pissarro. Despite a long police hunt, no trace of the paintings or the thieves was found for several years. Mr Noortman and the insurance firm Lloyds of London hired a Dutch private detective called Ben Zuidema to continue the search for the stolen masterpieces, but the trail appeared to have gone cold and Lloyds wrote a cheque to Mr Noortman for five million guilders. However, an informant came forward alleging that Mr Noortman had staged the theft in order to claim the insurance money and the paintings had been burnt after they were stolen, said Mr Zuidema. Police investigated the claims but no charges were ever brought against Mr Noortman and he died of a heart attack in January 2007. Then, late last year, Mr Zuidema was contacted by a man claiming to be a private investigator who said he had a client who claimed he was hired by Noortman 22 years ago to carry out the break-in. Mr Zuidema met the so-called private detective, who called himself Mr Kahn, and a woman, who said her name was Mrs Becker, in the Dutch town of Roermond on Dec 5 last year, only 20 miles from the gallery where the theft had taken place 22 years earlier. Mr Kahn told Mr Zuidema that his client said he had been instructed to burn the paintings but in fact destroyed only one of the pieces and lied to Noortman, claiming they had all been destroyed. "I knew there was something suspicious about this man. He told me he wanted me to help him blackmail the Noortman family," said Mr Zuidema. "He promised to give me one million euros if I helped arrange the deal." Mr Zuidema told the pair he would play along but, instead, he contacted the Dutch National Police Agency. Officers launched an inquiry and persuaded Mr Zuidema to meet Mr Kahn. Under instructions from the police, Mr Zuidema told Mr Kahn he agreed to the deal and when Mr Kahn left to collect the paintings, undercover officers followed him before arresting him and his alleged accomplices as they loaded six artworks into a van in Valkenburg. Police were then directed to a second property in Walem, where they recovered two more paintings. "The suspects were arrested in the street as they were moving six of the paintings," said Wim de Bruyn, a spokesman for the Dutch prosecution service. "The suspects were in possession of the paintings when they were arrested. "Some of the artworks had been folded and were seriously damaged," he added. Friends and colleagues in Dubai reacted with shock when they were told of the allegations against the man. The married father of two moved to the UAE around a year and a half ago to take up his executive job, after previously working at the firm's offices in Frankfurt. He resigned in November, colleagues said, and remained in Dubai, despite his wife and children living in Frankfurt. Former colleagues in Dubai were stunned to learn that he had been arrested. One man said: "He used to be our boss until about four months ago. He was married but his wife lived in Frankfurt and she used to come over here just to visit. "He suddenly resigned but I do not know why. He was a good boss and a nice man. I can't believe he has been arrested. "He was very hard working and good at his job. He was popular with the staff but kept his private life to himself." Another former colleague said that the man had lived in a luxury villa in the Al Barsha district of Dubai but moved recently to a new property and had not informed colleagues of its location. "He was a very impressive person and very charming. I don't know if he had a special interest in art," she added. Under Dutch law there is a statute of limitations preventing police prosecuting cases which are more than 20 years old. However, as the paintings are still listed as stolen, the trio were charged with handling stolen goods and money laundering. The arrests have reignited debate about the thefts amid hopes that the truth might finally emerge about who stole the paintings and where they have been hidden for the last two decades. chamilton@thenational.ae lhecke@thenational.ae