One of Italy’s most wanted men, an alleged top drug trafficker suspected of having bought two stolen Van Gogh paintings on the black market, has been arrested in Dubai.
Raffaele Imperiale, an alleged kingpin in the Naples-based Camorra organised crime syndicate, was arrested on 4 August, Italy’s state police and financial crimes police corps said in a joint statement on Thursday.
Imperiale, 46, is being held in the United Arab Emirates while Italy’s justice ministry completes extradition procedures.
Since January 2016, Imperiale has been sought by Italy for international drug trafficking as part of organised crime activity, according to the Italian interior ministry. He was considered one of Italy’s most dangerous and most wanted 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.
In 2016, two Van Gogh works, stolen in 2002 from an Amsterdam museum, were found stashed in a 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 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 earlier this year gave an interview to Naples daily Il Mattino in which he denied any link to the paintings’ theft and claimed he bought the works 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.
Imperiale – part of the Amato-Pagana clan – left Italy for Amsterdam in the 1990s to manage a coffee shop, and began allying himself with Dutch traffickers, according to Italian daily La Repubblica.
After first dealing in ecstasy tablets, he set his sights on the more lucrative cocaine trade, moving tons of drugs into Holland for the European market with the help of South American traffickers, while at the same time operating restaurants and investment companies, the paper said.