Russia is set to return to Belgium the 17th-century painting, "The Landscape with a Burning Church" by David Ryckaert, which was stolen from Antwerp in 1999. Deputy directors of Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) Vyacheslav Ushakov and Alexander Zhdankov have officially transferred it to the Russian Ministry of Culture and Mass Communications so that it can be prepared for its return journey home.
Sixteen paintings by 16th -and 17th-century artists from the western European school, including "The Landscape with a Burning Church", which is painted on wood, were stolen from a private collection five years ago, the FSB told RIA Novosti. International efforts were immediately launched to find the missing pieces.
In January 2004, the FSB learnt that a similar painting was on sale at the popular art exhibition on the Krymskaya Embankment in the centre of Moscow. According to Alexander Zhdankov, officers managed to obtain a photograph of the painting and then compared it with an Interpol copy of the stolen masterpiece. It was a complete match.
The return of this picture "is an important event in Russo-Belgian relations", Belgian Ambassador to Russia Andree Mernier has announced, while he added that the two states had started to co-operate more closely in combating international crime, in particular, the return of stolen artworks.
According to Anatoly Vilkov, the head of the Russian Ministry of Culture and Mass Communications' department for the protection of items of cultural values, the picture will soon undergo expert examination to confirm its authenticity and the private collector's ownership. After that, the necessary documents will be drawn up to take "The Landscape" back to Antwerp.
The Federal Security Service has recently returned many valuable cultural items to their owners both in Russia and abroad, Anatoly Vilkov said.
This January the Battle of Stalingrad museum in Volgograd received Auguste Rodin's bronze masterpieces "The Kiss" and "Jealousy". In November 2000, they were stolen from the museum with the aim of selling them to foreign collectors. The FSB solved this high-profile crime in late November 2003.
The FSB also foiled a plot to smuggle out of the country Franz Roubaud's painting "The Capture of Shamil" ("Taking of Gunib Aul"), which had been stolen from the Grozny museum. Officers also succeeded in bringing back to Russia a collection of decorations and medals worth two million dollars, while several Orthodox icons that had been illegally taken to Cyprus will be returned soon.
According to Anatoly Vilkov, many pieces of stolen Russian art are still abroad today. However, the Federal Security Service is set to return over 3,000 pieces that were looted from the Grozny museum in the 1990s to their homeland.