Spanish police recover priceless cultural treasures in mega bust of international art thieves

More that 3,500 individual cultural artefacts have been recovered and 75 people arrested for running an international art trafficking organization in an operation led jointly by Spanish and Cypriot police.

Spanish police recover priceless cultural treasures in mega bust of international art thieves

Several items identified as having “ great cultural importance in the archaeological world” were recovered as part of a widespread operation involving law enforcement agencies from 18 countries, according to a statement issued by Europol.

A marble Ottoman tombstone, and a post-Byzantine icon depicting Saint George were among the 3,561  treasures recovered as part of Operation Pandora, including 19 artefacts stolen from the Archaeological Museum in Murcia in 2014.

Over 400 stolen coins from different periods were seized following investigations into online advertisements, according to the statement.

“Interpol assisted investigators in the field by cross-checking hundreds of objects against their stolen works of art database. They also provided a swift response when identifying artefacts of illicit provenance.

Spain’s Interior Ministry said a total of 48.588 people were investigated and 29,340 vehicles and 50 boats searched during operations concentrated in October and November last year.


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Paul Gauguin’s ‘Mata Mua’ returns to Spain

One of French painter Paul Gauguin's most famous paintings, "Mata Mua", will return to a Madrid museum on Monday following an agreement between the Spanish government and its owner, who took it out of the country.

mata mua madrid
Toward the end of his life, Gauguin spent ten years in French Polynesia, where he completed some of his most famous artwork Painting: Paul Gaugin

The artwork had been on display for two decades at Madrid’s Thyssen-Bornemisza museum but in 2020 when the institution closed because of the pandemic, the painting’s owner Carmen Thyssen moved it to Andorra where she currently lives.

Her decision to take “Mata Mua” to the microstate sandwiched between Spain and France raised fears she would remove other works from her collection which are on display at the museum.

“It is expected that the painting will arrive today,” a spokeswoman for the museum told AFP.


In 1989, Baron Thyssen-Bornemisza bought Mata Mua at the Sotheby’s auction in New York. Painting: Paul Gauguin

The artwork will go back on display to the public “a few days after” Thyssen signs a new agreement with the Spanish state for the lease of her collection, she added. The deal is expected to be signed on Wednesday.

Painted in 1892 in vivid, flat colours, “Mata Mua” depicts two women, one playing the flute and the other listening, set against a lush Tahitian landscape.

It is one of the stars of Thyssen’s collection of several hundred paintings which are on show at the museum, including works by Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and Claude Monet.

Her collection had initially been displayed at the Madrid museum as part of a free loan agreement signed in February 2002 that was subsequently extended.

But in August 2021 Spain’s culture ministry announced it had reached an agreement with Thyssen to rent the collection from her for 15 years for €97.5 million ($111.5 million), with “preferential acquisition rights on all or part” of the works. The collection includes a Degas, a Hopper and a Monet.

Aside from housing her collection of works, the museum displays the collection of her late husband, Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza, the Swiss heir to a powerful industrial lineage who died in Spain in 2002.

The Spanish state bought his collection in 1993 from $350 million, according to the museum.