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Still Missing: The Giza Van Gogh

April 5, 2024
A floral still life by Vincent van Gogh

Poppy Flowers by Vincent van Gogh

The most recent incident in our ongoing Still Missing series is the theft of a Van Gogh painting in 2010. Poppy Flowers dates to 1886, during Vincent van Gogh’s time in Paris, and measures 26 by 21 inches. Some scholars say that it was the first Van Gogh painting bought by a collector from outside Europe or North America, with the Egyptian collector Mohamed Mahmoud Khalil Pasha having bought it sometime in the 1920s.

Khalil’s collection forms the basis of the Khalil Museum in Giza. It contains one of the greatest collections of European paintings outside Europe and North America. On top of being an art collector, Mohamed Mahmoud Khalil Pasha was a prominent Egyptian politician, serving in several cabinet positions before becoming the equivalent of prime minister on two occasions. Before attaining these positions, he studied law at the Sorbonne in Paris, where he started collecting French paintings. By his death in 1941, Khalil and his wife Emilienne were some of Egypt’s top art collectors. Emilienne bequeathed their art nouveau-style mansion in Giza to the Egyptian state upon her death in 1962, opening the Khalil Museum to house their art collection soon after. The museum consists mostly of Barbizon landscapes by Daubigny, Harpignies, and Corot, Impressionist paintings by Monet, Morisot, and Pissarro, and a few assorted sculptures by Rodin. There are many paintings by Egyptian painters as well. But the most famous Khalil collection work was probably Vincent van Gogh’s Poppy Flowers.

When Poppy Flowers was displayed at the Khalil Museum, it was hung on the wall in its own room, almost like some holy relic meant for veneration. The Khalil Museum has never been the most popular attraction in the Cairo area. Therefore, the staff’s attention to security likely grew relaxed. On August 22, 2010, only a couple hours after opening, museum staff found that the Van Gogh had been cut from its frame and replaced with a replica. Egypt’s culture minister, Farouk Hosni, implemented measures to prevent the painting from being taken out of the country.

Within a few hours of the theft’s discovery, an Egyptian news agency announced that a pair of Italians were caught with the painting at Cairo International Airport. The Italian tourists had been to the Khalil Museum that day, with museum officials pointing them out to the authorities after remembering some suspicious behavior. However, the two Italians did not have the painting with them, leading to Hosni quickly retracting his announcement that the Van Gogh had been recovered. Embarrassed, Hosni deflected by blaming the Khalil Museum’s director and several staff members. He accused them of “negligence and failing to carry out their employment duties”. Hosni also called for a full investigation into the incident. In the end, prosecutors uncovered the full extent of the museum’s security risks. Only seven of the forty-three security cameras were functioning, while none of the fifty-four security alarms worked.

A month after the initial theft, the Egyptian interior ministry announced that it was likely that a museum employee stole the painting or was somehow involved in the theft. Despite this insight, there were still no new leads.

The theft’s fallout left the museum’s doors closed for nearly ten years while they renovated the building and upgraded its security. The Khalil Museum only reopened in April 2021. Its reopening is often seen as part of the Egyptian government’s efforts to bolster the country’s cultural sector. These cultural campaigns also included the opening of the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization in 2017 and the Grand Egyptian Museum in Giza just last year.

Before and after the theft, the Khalil Museum was never Egypt’s most popular cultural institution. Foreign tourists tend to be drawn more toward Egypt’s archaeological sites and the museums dedicated to its ancient history. People would rather come to Egypt to see the pyramids than Pissarro. Therefore, going to a small museum full of French Impressionist paintings may seem silly since people visiting from Western Europe or North America could see those in their own country’s museums. After fourteen years, the chances of recovering the Van Gogh grow smaller and smaller.