Italian alleged mobster linked to Van Goghs is held in Dubai

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FILE – In this Tuesday, April 16, 2019 file photo museum director Axel Ruger, right, talks during a presentation of two restored paintings, that were stolen and went missing for 14 years before being recovered in Italy in 2016, by Dutch master Vincent van Gogh, View of the Sea at Scheveningen (1882), left, and Congeregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen (1884-1885), at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, Netherlands. The alleged top drug trafficker suspected of having bought two stolen Van Gogh paintings on the black market and one of Italy’s most wanted men, Raffaele Imperiale, has been arrested in Dubai, Naples-based police said Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong, file)

ROME (AP) — One of Italy’s most wanted men, an alleged major cocaine trafficker who investigators say bought two stolen Van Gogh paintings on the black market with drug money, has been arrested in Dubai, Naples-based police said Thursday.

Raffaele Imperiale, an alleged kingpin in the Naples-based Camorra organized crime syndicate, was arrested on Aug. 4, Italy’s state police and financial crimes police corps said in a joint statement.

Imperiale, 46, was being held in the United Arab Emirates while Italy’s justice ministry completes extradition procedures.

Italian authorities had been seeking him since January 2016 for alleged money laundering and international drug trafficking as part of organized crime activity, according to the Italian Interior Ministry. He was considered one of Italy’s most dangerous fugitives.

“He was able to construct an imposing network of international drug trafficking, in particular in cocaine,” the police said. According to Italian investigators, Imperiale started as an ”international broker” in the drug trade in the early 2000s, with his ties to powerful Camorra clans surviving various feuds among Naples mobsters.

Imperiale is “a top exponent of international drug trafficking and money laundering, who accumulated huge amounts of illicit wealth thanks above all to cocaine sales,” said Interior Minister Luciana Lamorgese.

In 2016, two Van Gogh paintings stolen in 2002 from an Amsterdam museum were found stashed in a non-descript farmhouse on property owned by Imperiale in the Naples-area town of his birth, Castellamare di Stabia.

“The wealth illicitly accumulated allowed him to buy on the black market two Van Gogh paintings of unquantifiable value,” police said. They referred to the 1882 “View of the Sea at Scheveningen” and a 1884-1885 work, “Congregation leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen,” which had been stolen from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.

Italian financial police found the paintings wrapped in cotton sheets, stuffed into a box and hidden behind a wall in a bathroom. The artworks were discovered as part of a seizure of property from Imperiale and another reputed Camorra drug kingpin.

Police noted that Imperiale gave an interview this year to Naples daily newspaper Il Mattino in which he denied any link to the museum theft and claimed he bought the paintings because he is a passionate lover of art.

“I bought them directly from the thief, because the price was attractive,. But most of all because I love art,” Imperiale was quoted as telling the newspaper. He made no secret of having lived in Dubai for several years.

Investing in art, real estate and legitimate businesses like hotels, restaurants and pharmacies is increasingly common among Italian mobsters awash in drug trafficking proceeds, according to Italian investigators.

Shortly before the Van Gogh paintings were discovered, Italy’s financial police seized some 40 houses in Spain that they alleged Imperiale had gotten with illicitly acquired revenue.

Italian anti-Mafia investigators have following Imperiale’s activities for years. The arrest of a close Imperiale associate who supervised the importation of cocaine from Venezuela led to the 2013 seizure of 1,330 kilos (roughly 1.5 tons) of the drug in Paris, according to Italian police.

Italian news reports said Imperiale lived for about 10 years in Amsterdam while allegedly directing drug shipments to Italy and then moved to Madrid and eventually Dubai.

Dutch daily newspapers De Telegraaf reported that he took over one of Amsterdam’s marijuana-selling coffeeshops in 1996.

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Mike Corder in Amsterdam contributed to this report.

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