PARIS – A Van Gogh painting was stolen overnight Monday from a small Dutch museum in an affluent enclave outside Amsterdam, officials at the Singer Laren museum announced.
To add to the mystery, there was also an uncanny coincidence, which may not have been a coincidence at all: Monday, March 30, marked Van Gogh’s birthday.
The painting – a relatively unknown canvas entitled “The Spring Garden,” completed in 1884 – had been loaned to the Singer Laren for a temporary exhibition from the Groninger Museum in Groningen, a city in the northern Netherlands.
The Singer Laren, which houses the collection of the American artist William Singer and his wife, Anna Singer, had been closed because of the coronavirus outbreak. Police are investigating the case and have not identified a suspect.
“I am extremely outraged that this happened,” said Jan Rudolph de Lorm, the museum’s director, at a news conference Monday. Evert van Os, the general manager of the Singer Laren, said that museum personnel were “angry, shocked, and sad.”
Andreas Blühm, director of the Groninger, said his museum had lent “The Spring Garden,” its only painting by Van Gogh, to the Singer Laren two months ago. He declined to provide the painting’s value but said that the canvas provided a rare glimpse into the artist’s early development.
“People often tend not to recognize the earlier paintings from this Dutch period, before he moved to Paris,” Blühm said, noting that the parish the painting depicts was where Van Gogh’s father had worked as a pastor. The garden the viewer sees is his father’s garden.
“It has a certain documentary and emotional value,” Blühm said. “It’s quite intimate.”
Although authorities have yet to provide many details about the case, the expert Dutch art investigator Arthur Brand, whose research has led to the recovery of hundreds of art works, said that the case would seem to fit with a specific type of art theft that has become a pattern in the Netherlands in recent years.
In June 1990, Brand said, three Van Gogh paintings – “The Sitting Farmer’s Wife,” “The Digging Farmer’s Wife” and “Wheels of the Water Mill in Gennep,” all from 1884 – were stolen from a similarly small Dutch museum, the Noordbrabants Museum in Den Bosch, a small city in the central Netherlands.
Those canvases ultimately turned up in the possession of the Dutch drug lord Kees Houtman, who later attempted to use them, Brand said, as a bargaining chip to negotiate a shortened sentence with prosecutors. Houtman was killed in 2005.
In 1991, there was also a major failed heist at Amsterdam’s Van Gogh National Museum, when gunmen stole 20 paintings early in the morning but then abandoned them at a nearby train station some 35 minutes later.
The same museum was targeted in 2002, when two other Van Gogh canvases – “View of the Sea at Scheveningen” (1882) and “Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Neunen” (1882-1884) – were stolen. They turned up later in the possession of Italian mobster Raffaele Imperiale, who resides in Dubai, from which Italian authorities are seeking his extradition. Like Houtman, Imperiale ultimately attempted to use the return of the Van Gogh paintings in exchange for a shortened sentence for drug trafficking, to which he had confessed, albeit in absentia.
After Imperiale provided their whereabouts to authorities, the two stolen paintings were recovered in 2016 and later returned to the Van Gogh museum.
Both Brand and Blühm doubted that the Singer Laren museum’s coronavirus closure somehow facilitated the crime: The theft occurred early in the morning when the museum would have been closed even during a normal week, and all normal security protocols were in place.
“These guys were professionals. They did it four or five minutes,” Brand said, referring to Monday’s heist. “They knew exactly what they were looking for – they went straight to this painting. It rang a bell.”