It was a masterpiece with a curse: an early Van Gogh worth €3m-€6m (£2.6m-£5.2m) stolen from a Dutch museum three years ago was being passed around the criminal world like a hot potato, according to art detective Arthur Brand.
“We knew that the painting would go from one hand to another hand in the criminal world, but that nobody really wanted to touch it because it wasn’t worth anything,” said Brand, who is known for retrieving stolen artworks. “You could only get in trouble. So it was a little bit cursed.”
This was the reason that on Monday night, he received an unusual visitor at the door of his apartment in Amsterdam, holding a battered, blue Ikea bag. Brand rushed up his stairs with the bag, carefully unwrapped a long painting from bubble wrap in front of a colleague recording the moment on video, and compared the back of the painting with an image he had been sent as “proof of life” that the Van Gogh still existed. It was the same. “It’s him,” he said. “Vincent van Gogh is back. What a day.”
Monday night was the end of a three-and-a-half year search for the artwork stolen in a brazen smash-and-grab in the early hours of 30 March 2020 from the small Singer Laren museum in the Netherlands, at that point closed due to coronavirus restrictions, in a heist that made headlines across the world.
But while the thief who walked off with The Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in Spring under his right arm – named by Dutch media as Nils M – was behind bars, and so was Peter Roy K, the criminal who prosecutors believe ordered it in an attempt to negotiate a reduced sentence, the early Van Gogh was nowhere to be found.
That was until Brand, the man nicknamed the “Indiana Jones of the art world”, had a lead. In a pre-arranged handover, with the agreement of the Dutch police, he took a home delivery of one of the world’s most wanted paintings.
Brand, who is most famous for having recovered the “Hitler’s Horses” bronze statues, a Picasso painting and a ring that once belonged to Oscar Wilde, told the Guardian that such a famous stolen item had become “a headache” and that the man who eventually handed it over had nothing to do with the theft.
“It was world news at the time when it was stolen. We are Dutch, it happened in the Netherlands, so it was a disaster,” he said. “Luckily, the police were able to arrest everybody involved: the thief who got eight years and a fine for €8.7m, the intermediaries were caught, the buyer was caught, everybody was in jail, but the painting was still not there …
“Eventually, I got contacted by somebody who said: ‘Mr Brand, I could turn in the Van Gogh, but I don’t want to get into trouble.’ I had to gain his confidence, and when I had, yesterday, he decided to deliver it to my home.”
Waiting at the corner of the street in a bar was Andreas Blühm, the director of the Groninger Museum, which owns the painting, which had been out on loan, and who swiftly authenticated it. Blühm was – he said – relieved and happy.
“You always imagine this moment,” Blühm said, “and there were moments when we thought it was getting closer but it didn’t happen, so we were quite traumatised by disappointments.
“And then you say: ‘I only believe it when I see it in the flesh.’ So I was super relieved, and even more relieved when we put it in a safe space.
“We talk about art theft, but it’s mostly art kidnapping, because they never really want to keep it. The ominous collector who puts it in storage or in a basement, they don’t exist, because you want to show things off. Either they want money from insurance, or they want a better sentence at court.”
The frameless painting, which is understood to have several scratches visible after being stored in suboptimal conditions, is at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam for expert analysis and restoration. Senior researcher Teio Meedendorp cannot wait to see it.
“It’s one of the earlier paintings from 1884, when for two months he returned home to his parents in Brabant,” he said. “This is one of the first paintings he did, a beautiful sight of the gardens behind the parsonage. Even though this early period is often described as being smoky and dark, it already shows his talent as a colourist.”
He added that the melancholy painting had another secret too. “There’s this figure in the garden with a spectral-like appearance. You might be tempted to read it as a sign that he was developing a love affair with his neighbour, that she might have been walking in the garden. It’s another mystery.”