Seventeen masterpieces valued at $17.7 million were returned to Italy from Ukraine on Wednesday after being stolen by masked, armed robbers from a Verona art museum last year. Italian Culture Minister Dario Franceschini, who traveled to Kiev to retrieve the paintings—which included works by Rubens, Tintoretto, and Mantegna—said the possibility of ever recovering them once seemed remote, the AP reports. Still, the paintings returned with little more than scratches after their long ordeal. "The works are all returning to Verona intact," Franceschini said. "It was an ugly story that became a beautiful story." Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko handed over the paintings to Franceschini in a ceremony in Kiev, saying "the theft of masterpiece paintings is akin to stealing part of the city's heart."
The paintings, wrapped in plastic bags, were recovered in May by Ukrainian border guards who intercepted them on a small island on the Dniester River during an attempt to smuggle them into Moldova. They were stolen in November 2015 when three armed robbers entered the Castelvecchio Museum, located in a medieval castle, at closing time just before the alarm system was activated. The robbers calmly removed the paintings before escaping in a security guard's car. A guard at the museum, Pasquale Silvestri Riccardi, was convicted of armed robbery and sentenced to 10 years and eight months in prison earlier this month. Five others were also convicted, including Riccardi's Moldovan girlfriend, who received six years, and his twin brother, who was sentenced to eight months. (Read more art theft stories.)