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The Van Gogh in the IKEA Bag

On September 12th, Van Gogh’s “Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in Spring” was returned, three years after it was stolen from a Dutch Museum in March 2020.

The Van Gogh in the IKEA Bag
Camille Blanco

Camille Blanco

November 12, 2023
7 Minutes

It was the early hours of a spring morning in March 2020 at the Singer Laren Museum. The rays of dawn had still not found their way through the windows of the museum’s gift shop, whose exciting knick-knacks and colorful postcards entice visitors to throw down their cash. Inside the museum, the galleries and halls are eerily still: Jo Koster’s Meisje met zonnehoed and Kees van Dongen’s Blue Hat are locked in an eternal staring contest, with no visitors to interrupt their forward gazes. 

In nearby Laren, life was still as a result of the recently imposed COVID restrictions. Since the 13th, the people had been stuck in their homes, sleeping, baking, and watching TV: the vicious, endless cycle of boredom and leisure, assuaged only by the escape into dreamland. People snored, crickets chirped, and leaves rustled—the soothing sounds of a typical Netherlandish night fill the air, bringing with them the prospect of a new day.

Suddenly, a sharp shatter severs the silent soundscape. The museum’s double-layered glass doors hold little resistance as a sledgehammer pierces through the glass and sends shrapnel flying across the room. A shadowy figure, clad in an olive-green overcoat and black trousers speeds through the gift shop, honed in on his target. He smashes through the second layer of doors in an instant and slips inside the hallway. In a matter of seconds, he returns: this time with a painting in his arms. The painting in question? Van Gogh’s “Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in Spring,” an 1884 oil on canvas depicting the garden and street façade of the Nuenen parish, where the artist lived between December 1883 and November 1885. And to add insult to injury, the painting was stolen on the day of the artist’s birthday almost 170 years later.  

A caricature drawn of the robbery. (Image: Le Monde)

This high caliber museum robbery at the Singer Laren isn’t uncommon: in 2007, thieves stole 7 sculptures from the museum’s sculpture garden, including a bronze cast of Rodin’s The Thinker. But what makes this theft different is the fact that the painting was on loan to the Singer Laren from the Groninger Museum, about 100 miles northeast. This painting was part of the Laren’s Mirror of the Soul exhibition which showcased “more than 70 Dutch paintings, watercolours and drawings from the 19th century” but was then closed in compliance with the COVID restrictions. The same day, the Museum released their own statement in a Youtube press conference. Framed by a black background and with his rectangular glasses perched on his nose, the museum’s director, Jan Rudolph de Lorm, expressed how “angry, shocked, [and] sad” he was at the painting’s “kidnap[ping]” and lamented the timing of this theft at an especially “difficult time” as “art is vital to our culture.”

The painting’s theft launched a flurry of investigations. Almost immediately, the painting was added to “Interpol’s international list of stolen works of art” and everyone, from the Dutch Brigade to Interpol to private detectives, were getting involved. Local police scoured the museum’s security footage of the theft and went door to door in Laren, requesting footage from other neighborhood cameras.

A cameraman filming the broken door of the Singer Laren Museum after the theft. (Image: the Denver Post)

In statements to Le Monde, Corrado Catesi, Interpol’s Works of Art Unit coordinator, says this theft was “the best example of crime against cultural property during the lockdown,” and Inspector Richard Bronswijk, head of the Dutch Brigade from The Hague, calls it “unprecendented.” Nevertheless, crimes of this type “exploded during the pandemic,” as Roxana Azimi writes, “in the Netherlands, there were six thefts of works of art from museums.” According to a report done by Interpol during the height of the pandemic, 854,742 cultural property objects were stolen from 72 countries around the world, and the percentage of illicit excavations increased anywhere from 32% (in Africa) to 3,812% (in Asia and the South Pacific). While they note that restrictions and museum closures perhaps “limited possibilities for criminals to steal objects from public collections,” we have obviously seen that daring theives did not let these obstacles impede their work.

By the end of 2020, it seemed like the painting would not be found, so the museum opted to return to a semi-normal state, which was difficult both due to the ongoing pandemic and the heightened fear from the theft. With added security measures (including a massive metal door), as Le Monde reports, the museum attempted to keep operations going as normal.

But there was more in store for the painting’s perilous journey. Almost a year after the theft, Dutch police made an arrest. While the painting was still missing in April 2021, the spokeswoman for the Dutch police, Maren Wonder, said that “a 58-year-old man was arrested at his home in the Dutch town of Baarn, 40 kilometres southeast of Amsterdam.” As is required by Dutch privacy law, his identity was not released to the public, but he was soon identified online as a Nils M. The man, whose criminal record includes crimes ranging from using explosives to steal a 17th century church vessel to possession of firearms and ammunition, was charged with the theft of 2 paintings—the Van Gogh and a Frans Hals from a museum in Leerdam.

Franz Hals’ Two Laughing Boys with a Mug of Beer, which was stolen for a third time in summer 2020. (Image: Art Review)

Detective Arthur Brand, dubbed the “Indiana Jones of the Art World,” commended Dutch police for the arrest, adding that the investigation had been “done fantastically. The best team in the Netherlands is on this case. Normally you see that the police stop after a few months, but this team perseveres.” Furthermore, Brand gave the international community hope as he teased knowledge of the painting’s current location. According to the Netherlandish news outlet Baarnsche Courant Brand says that “the [canvas] has probably been resold twice and is now in the hands of a man who is in custody for large-scale coke trafficking” and wants to “use the painting to reduce his sentence.” Brand suspected, at the time, that the Frans Hals still had not made its way out of Holland’s borders. 

Two long years passed with no progress having been made on the case of the stolen Van Gogh.

But then, “by the miracle of God,” the painting reappeared on 12 September 2023, on Arthur Brand’s doorstep. For Brand, who often works with the Dutch criminal underworld, the painting’s return wasn’t a surprise. This hand-over was “pre-arranged” with the approval of the Dutch police. A video posted to his Instagram (@arthurbranddetective) shows the detective coming up the stairs to his apartment with a bubble-wrapped parcel in an IKEA bag that he grasps in his right hand. As soon as the camera pans to Brand’s sitting room, the detective unveils the Van Gogh in a zealous fervor, exhaling and smiling as he admires the painting in his hands. In another video posted later that same day, he addressed his followers, telling them that he will be returning the painting to the Dutch police. Richard Bronswick, in an interview with Al Jazeera said that “Arthur Brand, in cooperation with the Dutch police, has solved this matter. [The painting] is definitely the real one, there’s no doubt about it.” 

In an interview with The Guardian, Brand recounted exactly how the recovery of the “little bit cursed” painting had unfolded. After the arrest was made in 2021—with the accused receiving a maximum sentence of 8 years and a whopping €8.7 million fine, and the other intermediaries and buyers jailed—Brand recalls that someone reached out to him and sent him a “proof-of-life” of the painting with a New York Times newspaper dating 30 March 2020. This person had the Van Gogh in his possession and “could turn in the Van Gogh, but [didn’t] want to get into trouble.” Brand highlights the delicate nature of his work as he states “[I had to] gain [the person’s] confidence, and when I had, yesterday [11 September], he decided to deliver it to my home.” Brand makes it clear, however, that the person who was in possession of the painting was not the one who stole it.

The proof-of-life for the Van Gogh painting, which was sent to Arthur Brand. On the left is a New York Times article dating to 30 March 2020 and on the right is a copy of Octave Durham’s Meesterdief (Master Thief). (Image: The Art Newspaper)

In his own statement to The Guardian, Andreas Blühm, the director of the Groninger Museum (the museum that originally owns the Van Gogh), expresses his relief at the painting’s return: “You always imagine this moment and there were moments when we thought it was getting closer but it didn’t happen, so we were quite traumatised by disappointments.” Unfortunately, Brand and Blühm discovered that the painting had been damaged during its daring journey across the Netherlands. Now, it has been sent to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam for restoration by senior researcher Teio Meedendorp.

As the sun sets on the evening of 12 September 2023, the same sounds—of people snoring, of crickets chirping, of leaves rustling—fill the Netherlandish night. In Laren, the people are bustling around, the COVID restrictions long gone. In Amsterdam, the Van Gogh rests on an easel, conservation materials set out beside it as the shadowy figure in the 17th-century parish walkway scans the room, blending in with the cool night hues. But there’s now a new sound emanating from the crowded scene of an Amsterdam street bar. As glasses clink in a toast to Brand and the Dutch police’s partnership and cheers fill the air, one thing is for certain, as Brand writes on his Instagram, this is a “great day for all Van Gogh lovers out there.”  

(Cover Image: Dutch detective Arthur Brand with the stolen Van Gogh, “Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in Spring.” Image: The New York Times)

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