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'Indiana Jones of the Art World' recovers stolen Van Gogh

By Jan Hennop / AFP Published Sep 12, 2023 9:32 pm Updated Sep 13, 2023 4:11 pm

A Dutch art detective has recovered a precious Vincent van Gogh painting that was stolen from a museum in a daring midnight heist during the coronavirus lockdown three-and-a-half years ago, police said Tuesday.

Arthur Brand took possession of the missing painting, the 1884 "Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in Spring", worth between three and six million euros (P182 and P364 million), at his Amsterdam home on Monday, stuffed in a blue IKEA bag.

Brand, dubbed the "Indiana Jones of the Art World" for tracing a series of high-profile lost artworks, told AFP that confirming the painting was the stolen Van Gogh was "one of the greatest moments of my life."

"Arthur Brand, in cooperation with the Dutch police, has solved this matter," Richard Bronswijk of the Dutch police arts crime unit confirmed to AFP. "This is definitely the real one, there's no doubt about it."

Brand told AFP that frequent calls by him and the Dutch police to hand back the stolen artwork finally paid off when a man, whose identity was not revealed for his own safety, handed Brand the painting in a blue IKEA bag, covered with bubble-wrap and stuffed in a pillow casing.

A video clip supplied by Brand showed him unpacking the painting in his lounge and gasping in astonishment when he realized what it was.

"I couldn't believe it," he said.

The Parsonage Garden at Nuenen by Vincent van Gogh
'Massive headache'

The painting was burgled from the Singer Laren Museum near Amsterdam on March 30, 2020, in a heist that made headlines around the world.

Dutch police released video images shortly after the burglary showing a thief smashing through a glass door in the middle of the night, before running out with the painting tucked under his right arm.

In April 2021, police arrested a man named in Dutch media as Nils M. for the theft. He was later convicted and sentenced to eight years behind bars.

M. was also convicted for stealing another masterpiece by Frans Hals called "Two Laughing Boys" in a separate heist.

"After a few months I heard from a source in the criminal world who had bought the Van Gogh," from Nils M, said Brand, who has gained fame for his remarkable recoveries of stolen art, including the "Hitler's Horses" bronze statues, a Picasso painting, and a ring that once belonged to Oscar Wilde. 

This man, identified by Dutch media as Peter Roy K., was currently behind bars for a separate case involving the large-scale import and export of cocaine, Brand said.

K. wanted to use the painting as collateral to negotiate a reduction in his sentence.

Brand confirmed Peter Roy K.'s identity, stressing he had said before that "no deal for a reduced sentence would be made."

The whereabouts of the Van Gogh however remained unknown until two weeks ago when a mysterious man contacted Brand saying he wanted to return it.

After some negotiation, Brand persuaded the man—who had "nothing to do with the theft", according to the art detective—to hand back the artwork.

"The man told me 'I want to return the Van Gogh. It has caused a massive headache'" because it could not be used as a bargaining chip, Brand said.

"In an operation done in close coordination with the Dutch police, we got the painting back," he said.

The painting, which comes from relatively early on in Van Gogh's career, before the prolific artist embarked on his trademark post-impressionist paintings such as "Sunflowers" and his vivid self-portraits, has already been handed back to the director of the Groninger Museum, from where it was on loan to the Singer Laren Museum.

"At first there was disbelief. Staff were asking themselves 'Can this be true?'" said Karina Smrkovsky, head of communications at the Groninger museum.

"Then, when it was confirmed, our disbelief turned into delight. We are incredibly happy that it has been returned," Smrkovsky told AFP. "We are incredibly thankful to Arthur Brand for getting it back."

Smrkovsky said however that the painting would not be on public display immediately, most probably only next year.

"We are delighted that art lovers from all over the world once again will be able to see this wonderful painting," said Evert van Os, museum director at Singer Laren.

Meanwhile Frans Hals' "Two Laughing Boys" remains missing—but Brand said he hoped it would also be returned soon.