The apparent resurfacing of dozens of stolen Dutch masterpieces and other artifacts in war-torn eastern Ukraine has Kyiv scrambling to track down the works and avoid a PR disaster ahead of a crucial vote on deeper relations with the European Union.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin this week announced an investigation into the missing 17th- and 18th-century paintings -- which were heisted from a Dutch gallery a decade ago and are now reportedly at a villa in the Donbas region, where pro-Russian separatists are fighting Ukrainian forces -- in a case that he said was "very important" for both countries.
Klimkin said a failure to return the paintings could play into the hands of "those who are trying to spoil the image of Ukraine" ahead of an April 6 referendum in the Netherlands seeking approval for Ukraine's Association Agreement with the EU.
Klimkin added that the Dutch government also raised the issue of the missing paintings with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko during a November 26 visit to The Hague.
The Dutch vote is the final approval needed for the political and economic agreement -- which will establish a free-trade zone and could lead to visa-free travel for Ukrainians -- to go into effect.
Although the poll is not binding, the Association Agreement cannot be formally approved by the Dutch government until the referendum is held -- and a "no" vote could cause the government to reconsider the pact.
The agreement -- which Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych rebuffed just months before he was ousted in 2014, and over which Russia has threatened to levy sanctions -- has been approved by the EU's other 27 members.
Den Of Thieves
Snatched by two burglars in a high-tech theft from the Westfries Museum in the Dutch city of Hoorn in January 2005, nothing was heard about the 24 paintings and some 70 antique silver and ceramic pieces until January 2014, when a photograph of one of them appeared on a Ukrainian-language web forum with a dated newspaper next to it.
But the museum's hopes of recovering the trove of artifacts were dashed when police and cybersleuths were unable to determine who had posted the photo or why.
PHOTO GALLERY: The stolen Dutch paintings
There were no further leads in the case until July of this year, when two Ukrainians contacted the Dutch Embassy in Kyiv and told them they had located the paintings in a villa belonging to a member of Yanukovych's "entourage" in territory controlled by pro-Russian separatists in the Donetsk region.
Museum officials say the two men -- who claimed to represent the ultranationalist Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) militia -- asked for 50 million euros ($55 million) and no involvement from the Ukrainian authorities in exchange for the stolen art.
One of the men, Borys Humenyuk, told RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service that he was labeled a "hero" during the meeting with the Dutch Embassy officials for coming forward with news about the paintings.
"I said, 'OK...I have this information and you can deal with it any way you want,'" Humenyuk said. "They were very grateful for that information -- they told me I'm a hero to the Dutch and that I did a great thing."
He said he never asked for money when he met the Dutch Embassy officials.
"If that was the case, then I don't know why we didn't come to some kind of an agreement [to return the stolen paintings]," Ad Geerdink, director of the Westfries Museum, told RFE/RL when asked about Humenyuk's claim of not seeking tens of millions of euros.
"We offered them 50,000 euros as a 'finder's fee' -- and as a token of our gratitude -- but we refused to pay them money for our very own paintings," he said. "We started the talks with high hopes, but they had a very inflated idea about the actual value of the paintings."
Geerdink said the paintings have been valued by Dutch art expert Arthur Brand as worth about 1.3 million euros ($1.43 million) -- if they are in good condition.
But based on the one painting that they saw in the photo, Geerdink said, the condition of the masterpieces has deteriorated significantly and they would have to undergo extensive restoration.
Geerdink added that the Dutch side was told that members of the Ukrainian group that claimed to know where all 24 of the paintings were, the OUN, would have to risk their lives to recover them from the villa.
Humenyuk said he also met with art expert Brand -- who had been tabbed by the Westfries Museum to try to negotiate the return of the paintings -- and had agreed to pass information from the embassy on to those who knew where the paintings were.
He said Brand later told him the paintings had to be returned by September 10 or else he would be "followed by Interpol."
Humenyuk, who claimed to be a former OUN deputy commander, said he told an interpreter speaking for Brand that he had "nothing to do with the collection, I just want to help the Netherlands."
Brand said that Oleh Tyahnybok, head of the ultranationalist Svoboda party, and Valentyn Nalyvaychenko, the former head of the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU), were also involved in the affair and know who possesses the paintings.
Nalyvaychenko called reports of his involvement in the stolen paintings "complete nonsense."
Tyahnybok's spokeswoman, Krystyna Ravlyuk, was equally dismissive. "We have a question: How many kilograms of marijuana did the Russian secret services pay [the Dutch to get them] to distribute this nonsense?" she asked. "That is an absolute lie."
Tyahnybok mocked the Dutch charges on Facebook by showing a photo of his office wall where portraits of Ukrainian ultranationalist leader Stepan Bandera and two controversial OUN leaders from the World War II-era were hanging, writing that those were the only paintings he had:
Back in Hoorn, officials told RFE/RL that the paintings' value to the town went far beyond money.
The missing masterpieces -- almost all of which were painted during what is known as Holland's Golden Age, which produced painters like Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Van Ruisdael -- chronicle both the region and city of Hoorn when it was home to the Dutch East India Company and was one of the world's most prosperous trading centers.
"The cultural and historical worth of the paintings is far more important" than the $1.43 million estimated value, Marieke van Leeuwen, spokeswoman for the city of Hoorn, told RFE/RL. "Most of the paintings are by painters who came from Hoorn or West Friesland. Those paintings are irreplaceable."
Museum director Geerdink said the decision to go public with the story and discuss the latest developments in Ukraine was due to concerns that the stolen paintings were being shopped around on the international market and that there were interested buyers.
He said he hoped to scare away potential buyers by publicizing the fact that they are stolen. "The word spreads very fast [within the art-collecting community] when an art collector wants to buy 24 old Dutch masters," Geerdink said of recent murmurs in the art world about possible purchases of the stolen paintings.
Van Leeuwen said they had heard recently of possible buyers located in Kazakhstan, Ukraine, and Germany.
"Once the paintings are sold into an illegal circuit and are distributed all over the world, then they are gone forever," said Geerdink, who said he was encouraged by the Ukrainian government's recent vow to resolve the situation.
He added that there should be no linkage made between the Hoorn paintings and the Ukrainian government's attempts to gain possession of a collection of ancient Scythian gold objects that were loaned to an Amsterdam gallery by some Crimean museums that Kyiv does not want returned to the now Russian-occupied peninsula.
That case is currently being contested in Dutch courts, and some observers are concerned Kyiv might want to hear a favorable verdict from a judge on the Scythian gold before the issue of the Dutch paintings is resolved.
"We realize our stolen paintings have become part of a very complicated situation in which the fighting in eastern Ukraine, [downed] Malaysian flight MH17, and the Scythian case may play a part in all of this," Geerdink said.
Ukraine's police chief, Khatia Denakoidze, told reporters on December 10 that Kyiv was waiting for an official request from Dutch prosecutors and had invited Dutch authorities to participate in the effort to recover the paintings.
With reporting by Olena Removska and translating by Merhat Sharipzhan and Maria Moiseieva