“This was a large operation that we have been working on for some time with the (US Federal Bureau of Investigation) FBI and Swedish police, and that gave good results,” Copenhagen police spokesman Flemming Steen Munch told AFP.
“After a long stakeout we had the feeling that the painting would be sold on Thursday evening. We caught the four individuals redhanded as they were showing the painting to a potential buyer,” he added.
Steen Munch refused to divulge any details on the buyer, but insisted that “the painting is in good hands” and that it had not been damaged during the time it was missing.
The work, a self-portrait of Rembrandt that has been valued at some 37 million dollars was stolen along with two paintings by French impressionist Pierre-Auguste Renoir in an armed heist at Sweden’s National Museum on December 22, 2000.
Just five minutes before closing, three masked and heavily armed men walked into the museum, in the centre of the Swedish capital, and snatched the precious artworks from the walls as crowds of witnesses looked on.
The three robbers threw spikes onto the road to slow the police chase and set several parked cars on fire before jumping into a speedboat waiting for them at the waterfront museum and fleeing into the darkness.
Investigators recovered the boat about two hours later, on the banks of Lake Mälaren in southern Stockholm, but the three men and the paintings had vanished.
The four men arrested on Thursday, two Iraqi brothers, one Swede and a Gambian national, had been trying to sell the master’s self portrait for a mere 200,000 dollars, according to a statement from a local court that remanded them in custody on Friday.
One of the Renoirs, “Conversation”, was found in central Stockholm on April 5, 2001, by police investigating a drugs case, but the French painter’s “Young Parisian” remains missing.
According to Steen Munch, Danish police have no information on the whereabouts of the missing Renoir.
Nine men have already been handed heavy prison sentences in Sweden for their involvement in the spectacular heist, with a 47-year-old Swede currently serving an eight-year sentence for masterminding the robbery.
Steen Munch refused to comment on whether the four men arrested in Copenhagen were suspected of being linked to the Stockholm robbery.
“We are overjoyed,” National Museum spokeswoman Lena Munther told AFP after receiving word from Danish police that the Rembrandt had been recovered.
The timing was especially good, she said, since “this portrait plays a central role in a new exhibit opening next week”, entitled “The Dutch golden age. Rembrandt, Frans Hals and their contemporaries”.
“We hope we get it back in time for the opening … on September 22 … but we don’t know yet,” Munther added.