AN ELDERLY woman living in a care home unwittingly harboured for 20 years valuable paintings that had been stolen from a museum in Holland.

She bought six 19th Century oil paintings in 1991 for a few hundred pounds but it was not until after her death that it was discovered they had been stolen from the Amsterdam Museum in 1972.

The revelation came after her widower offered the paintings, worth an estimated £20,000 now, for auction to his local Lewes auctioneers, Gorringes Auction House, which checked them against a database of stolen art, the Art Loss Register.

The oils, by Dutch, Belgian and Polish-French artists, have now been returned to the museum, where it is expected many will go back on display.

Paul Spies, director of the Amsterdam Museum, said yesterday: “These paintings were a great loss to our collection and we are grateful to the Art Loss Register, Gorringes and to their consignor for their contribution in recovering these paintings which have been missing from our museum for so long and which we had little hope of seeing again.”

Clifford Lansberry, partner and head of pictures at Gorringes, told The Argus it was rumoured the care home resident had bought the paintings from a man selling art at care homes door-to-door.

It is not clear who owned them before.

There is no suggestion she or her husband had any inkling they were stolen.

In contemporary European style, the mid-late-19th Century paintings are by Dutch artists Frederik Hendrik Kaemmerer, Charles Rochussen and August Allebé; Belgian artists Florent Willems and Charles van Beveren; and the Polish-French artist Emile Eisman Semenowsky.

They depict traditional scenes of life at the time, such as the ‘Pipe-playing shepherd boy and sheep,’ by Kaemmerer, and would have been expensive in their day.

Mr Lansberry said: “It was crazy to find out from the museum they had been stolen so long ago. We check everything against the database and it is probably once or twice a year something is flagged up as potentially stolen.”

The paintings were among 49 artworks stolen from the storage depot of the Amsterdam Museum in 1972, all of which were registered on the Art Loss Register database.