Two months after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a public health emergency of international concern, one of the most recent major art thefts of note took place. On March 30, 2020, a lone thief broke into the Springer Laren Museum outside of Amsterdam and stole Vincent van Gogh’s 1884 painting, The Parsonage Garden at Nuenen. Van Gogh created the work while staying with his parents in the southern Netherlands. It had been in the Groninger Museum collection since 1962 but had been on loan to the Springer Laren Museum when the robbery occurred. Appropriately, or perhaps inappropriately, the theft took place on the artist’s 167th birthday. However, after nearly three-and-a-half years, the painting has been located and recovered.
Arthur Brand, a Dutch art historian who has become a specialist in tracking down lost and stolen artworks, worked alongside Dutch police in locating the Van Gogh. The last photo of the painting surfaced a few months after the robbery. The perpetrators released a picture alongside a copy of that day’s New York Times international edition, like a cartoon villain would do in a hostage situation to show proof of life. In April 2021, over a year after the incident, Dutch authorities arrested a 58-year-old man on suspicion of stealing several paintings by Van Gogh and Frans Hals, amounting to over $22 million. They now believe that a cocaine smuggler in Dutch police custody had ordered the robbery to gain leverage against prosecutors to negotiate shortening his sentence. The Parsonage Garden at Nuenen was only slightly damaged, but is still in good condition.
Brand predicted that because of Van Gogh’s fame as well as the robbery’s coverage, the thieves would have very few options as to how to get rid of the painting. Stolen art can be a double-edged sword in that way. It’s valuable, the stolen Van Gogh itself being worth between €3 million and €6 million (or $3.2 million to $6.4 million). However, because art theft is often thoroughly documented, it becomes impossible to sell. That’s why museum and gallery thefts like the Gardner Museum heist have yet to be solved. On Monday night, Brand said someone reached out to him to hand over the Van Gogh. This person came to his Amsterdam apartment with a blue IKEA bag containing the stolen Van Gogh packed in bubble wrap. Brand compared the painting, both the front and back, to the images released in June 2020 and confirmed that they indeed possessed the stolen painting. Brand also invited Andreas Blühm, director of the Groninger Museum, to authenticate it himself.
The Parsonage Garden at Nuenen has since been turned over to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam for restoration.