The good news, with which no one expected, came after almost exactly 40 years: Five Old Master paintings, which were stolen in December 1979 in the former GDR from the museum in the castle Friedenstein in Gotha and have since been considered lost, are in safety. After research by ZEIT, ZEIT ONLINE and Deutschlandfunk, they have been in the custody of the Rathgen Research Laboratory of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin for several weeks. The condition is "quite decent," confirms someone who has been able to look at the found treasures: "They have been damaged and not very well restored, but on the whole they are fine." The return of the pictures also triggered new police investigations. Perhaps this will clarify what exactly happened on that winter night in Thuringia 40 years ago - and which path the paintings took exactly after that, right up to the end.

The invasion of the Gotha Castle Museum in 1979 was the most spectacular art theft in the history of the GDR - and was until recently one of the largest and most enigmatic cases of art crime. The loot - five paintings attributed to Jan Brueghel the Elder at that time, Anthonis van Dyck, Frans Hals, Hans Holbein the Elder, and Rembrandt's contemporary Jan Lievens - disappeared for four decades, and the political system change in-between did not change that. At the time of the theft, the value of the paintings was estimated by the GDR authorities to be a modest 4.5 million marks. Today, the paintings are probably worth a multiple in euros, although some attributions may well be in question now.

That the pictures have now reappeared is a sensation. The chronological context of this news from the invasion of the Green Vault in Dresden less than two weeks ago, during which a good dozen pieces of the fabulous jewelery were stolen from the Treasury of Augustus the Strong, is purely coincidental - and yet shows the fate of the Gotha paintings a possible end to such art thefts. And how long it can take.

A call from West Germany

In the case of Gotha, months of negotiations preceded the return. As early as June 2018, Knut Kreuch, Lord Mayor of Gotha, had registered a lawyer on behalf of a client from West Germany. At first, the lawyer had only hinted at the paintings; only later was talk of recovery and return, against payment of a million. In Gotha everyone knows the story of the disappearance of these paintings. Kreuch himself had pursued the reports as a teenager in the GDR.

The evening of 13th to 14th December 1979 was cold, rainy and stormy in Gotha. There were hardly any people on the cobbled streets around the small park in the city center, where the baroque palace complex is located. Not at all between two and three o'clock in the night, when several perpetrators climbed over a downpipe to the third floor of the Schloss Friedenstein used as a museum and penetrated through a window into the exhibition halls. They did not focus on what hung closest to disappear as quickly as possible - the burglars were obviously above all the Brueghel painting rural road with farm wagons and cows in the sights.

It was not the first time that someone wanted to steal this painting from around 1610 from the castle in Gotha. The first three attempts, which had been made within a few months, had slapstick failed. The first time, in August 1978, the thin lightning conductor detached itself from the wall, where the burglars wanted to climb to a small wall projection eight to nine meters high. The second time they had brought a folding ladder, but were still unsuccessful because they could not open the window. The third time, on October 11, 1978, the coup was almost successful, but an attentive janitor noticed the burglary and notified the police. Six perpetrators were arrested.

During the subsequent process, they said that they were dealing with the "gypsy Brueghel": The large painting by Jan Brueghel the Elder, however, shows neither a specific population nor nomads, but a country road with carriage traffic. The arrested were citizens of the GDR. One of the backers of the deed is said to have been the then-deceased Otto W., a quite dazzling figure in the real socialist country: He worked as a horse trader and operator of a pub in Elbingerode, but was also in the planned state organized by Speculative transactions with gold noticed - and cooperated with the national security. Unlike him, the six defendants were sentenced to prison in January 1979. Because of a general amnesty on the occasion of the thirtieth anniversary of the founding of the GDR, October 7, 1979, they were not in prison for long: Between September and November, all were released.

Only a short time later succeeded in December 1979, the burglary into the castle museum of Gotha. Whoever the perpetrators were, they not only stole the Brueghel picture the defendants had been aiming for the year before. In the same so-called Dutch Hall they tore three more valuable old master paintings, including the heavy frame from the wall - and a portrait of St. Catherine of Hans Holbein in another room. The perpetrators must have known that in the museum a new alarm system had been installed, but should only be put into operation three days later. So the paintings were almost defenseless. When exactly the nightfall took place, only the air conditioners registered: at 2:30 it was suddenly cold and damp in the museum.