VILNIUS - A large part of the valuable collection of paintings that disappeared 10 years ago after the murder of a famous collector has been found in Vilnius and Kaunas.
Nine paintings by Ricardas Mikutavicius were found and four suspects identified as a result of a successful operation by the Criminal Police and the General Prosecutor Office's organized crime unit, spokespeople said Feb. 14.
The suspects and whereabouts of the paintings were identified with the help of a police agent who posed as a buyer and actually bought four paintings to gain the thieves' trust.
The paintings, which were revealed after searches on Feb. 7-8, are worth at least 700,000 litas (203,000 euros).
The remaining 18 paintings, the museum value of which is about 800,000 litas, are still to be found.
Algirdas Matonis, the head of the Criminal Police Bureau, said that the paintings were found in good condition.
"They were well taken care off 's not musty or eaten by rats. Persons who were hiding the paintings perfectly understood how much they are worth," noted Matonis at a press conference on Feb 14.
Mikutavicius 's priest, poet, writer, public figure and art collector 's disappeared on July 1, 1998 together with his collection of 51 paintings, as well as different sculptures, clocks, caskets and other valuable items.
The news shocked the nation, especially after Mikutavicius' body was found not long after in an unrecognizable state. In fact, the priest had been buried in an unmarked grave.
One suspect, an art trader by the name of Vladas Beleckas, was arrested in the days after the disappearance but later released because of lack of evidence.
Investigation further revealed that Mikutavicious had been lured into an apartment by Beleckas. The priest was tied, poisoned and thrown into Nemunas River with weights attached to his legs. The men who carried out the murder reportedly received $4,000 each.
Approximately a year after the murder, a Vilnius' art collector, Vilnius Kavaliauskas, alerted authorities that Beleckas' nephew had attempted to sell him a missing valuable from Mikutavicius' collection.
It was the smoking gun for investigators, who arrested Beleckas again, as well as his cohorts. At that point a part of the collection was discovered.
Beleckas was subsequently convicted and sentenced to life, though he still refused to reveal the location of the remaining valuables. He proclaimed repeatedly that he is certain that the remainder of the collection will never be revealed, the Lietuvos Rytas daily reported on Feb. 15.
"I hid the paintings in Vilnius and Kaunas apartments, which are not visited by anyone," Beleckas said, noting that he sold most of the collection and only eight paintings and a few other valuables remained.
Rolandas Tilindis, the responsible prosecutor of the General Prosecutor's Office, implied at the conference that Beleckas did not change his mind in helping the investigation.
"I cannot say that the convicted Beleckas helped us find the paintings. His present state of being does not oblige him to help us," the prosecutor said.
Beleckas tried to appeal the sentence repeatedly, but the Supreme Court in 2001 rejected his appeal and upheld the final decision, according to which Beleckas will spend the rest of his days in prison.
Ivanas Kvaskovas, the spearhead behind the murder, killed himself in 2001 after having served only a year in prison in a 22-year sentence.
Arturas Daskovskis was sentenced to 19 years and Valdas Puodziunas to 13.
The case was also scandalous in its implications of corruption or negligence among authorities.
As mentioned, Mikutavicius' body was not recognized at first, but after the exhumation revealed the priest's identity, several coroners lost their jobs, Lithuanian media at the time reported.
Beleckas managed to escape from an open police car in 1999 immediately after his second arrest, further raising questions about police integrity.
Mikutavicius' art collection case is included in police manuals as an example of a successful international investigation, Lietuvos Rytas reported on Feb 14.
Some of the most valuable paintings were found in 2001, when officials of Lithuania, Germany, the U.K. and other countries joined their forces and an undercover British agent posed as buyer.
Kaunas mafia authorities Vidmantas Gudzinskas and Virginijus Silvestravicius, as well as Beleckas' ex-wife, Ona Daujotienene, were apprehended as a result of the international operation.
"This [most recent] operation is a continuation of the work started in 2001," noted prosecutor Tilindis.
The value of the collection is not indicated, although it has been previously reported that it amounted to at least 5 's 15 million litas.
Mikutavicius once said he would like to give his collection to the city of Kaunas, but it was not expressed in a will or any other definitive form, so the valuables were inherited by collector's relatives.
The Vilnius District Court authorized the detention of two out of four suspects apprehended on Feb. 11. One of the suspects has already been convicted for a crime connected with Mikutavicius' collection, the daily Lietuvos Zinios reported.