Theft of Van Gogh’s The Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in Spring 1884, One Year Later

It’s been one year since the the brazen smash-and-grab theft of the Van Gogh painting, The Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in Spring (1884). We look back at the theft, what we know so far, and we explore Van Gogh’s time spent in Nuenen, where he painted the stolen piece.

Update Tue 6 Apr 2021: Just hours after we published this blog post, a 58 year old man was taken into custody, accused of stealing both the Van Gogh Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in Spring 1884 and the Frans Hals Two Laughing Boys with a Mug of Beer. The paintings have yet to be recovered.

A Timeline of What We Know

  • How it started: The Vincent van Gogh painting, The Parsonage Garden at Nuenen was stolen from the Singer Laren museum in Laren, North Holland on Van Gogh’s birthday, March 30th, 2020. The painting was on loan from the Groninger Museum at the time of the theft — which no doubt led to an incredibly awkward conversation between museum directors.
  • Easy Heist: Octave Durham, a convicted thief who stole two van Gogh paintings from Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum and served time as a result, was quoted in the New York Times as saying, “This is the easiest art heist I’ve ever seen. His gear is not even professional. He’s got jeans and Nike sneakers on.”
  • Proof of Life: In June of 2020. photographs of the painting with a copy of the  New York Times  dated May 30th, 2020 were sent to Dutch art detective Arthur Brand.
Above: This image was released by Dutch art detective, Arthur Brand on June 18, 2020
  • August, 2020: RTV Noord reported there were, “strong indications that the stolen Van Gogh painting from the Groninger Museum has now been sold for several hundred thousand euros to Dutch criminals.”
  • February, 2021: De Telegraaf reported the investigation was focused on a suspect currently in jail for a major drug trafficking offense who allegedly paid for the painting’s theft. He hoped that its safe return could be used as a bargaining chip for a reduced sentence, but has so far been unsuccessful.
  • March 29, 2021: On his private Twitter account, Arthur Brand re-posts the May, 2020 proof of life photo with the following comment, “…it’s a year ago that this Van Gogh was stolen in the Netherlands. A suspect has been charged for fencing but the painting is still missing.”
  • How it’s going: On April 02, 2021, replied to Mr. Brand’s tweet to confirm the following status of the case: “Was the thief a ‘smash and grab’ for hire and now the guy who bought it has it hidden by accomplice as possible bargaining chip?” To which Brand replied, “yes.”

Update Tue 6 Apr 2021: Just hours after we published this blog post, a 58 year old man was taken into custody, accused of stealing both the Van Gogh Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in Spring 1884 and the Frans Hals Two Laughing Boys with a Mug of Beer. The paintings have yet to be recovered.

Van Gogh in Neunen

Van Gogh moved in with his parents in Nuenen where his father was a pastor for the Dutch Reformed Church. He lived in Nuenen from December 1883 to November 1885, before moving to Antwerp to continue his education and discover new techniques. 

His father was not thrilled by his arrival in Nuenen, but his parents allowed him to convert a dark and damp laundry/utility room (aka: the mangle room) into his bedroom and studio. In a letter to his brother, Vincent shares his discontent and diagrams the reality of his studio which shared space with coal storage and cesspit.

An excerpt of a letter from Vincent to Theo [March 20, 1884]:
“I would take a slightly roomier studio somewhere, which I need in order to be able to work with a model. The one I have at present has the following geographical location.”

Above: Van Gogh’s diagram (annotated with English) of his bedroom and studio space in Neunen 

“…and my powers of imagination aren’t strong enough to think this an improvement on the situation last year. This doesn’t alter the fact that, if I complain about something, there appear in your letters such passages as: I (Theo) think that your position is better now than last summer. Really?”

The Potato Eaters

Van Gogh’s The Potato Eaters
Above: Van Gogh’s The Potato Eaters

During that two year period in Nuenen, Van Gogh was prolific, producing hundreds of drawings, paintings, sketches and watercolors, many depicting the daily life of local peasants, including his first famous painting, The Potato Eaters.

In December 1988, thieves stole an early version of The Potato Eaters, and two more Van Gogh paintings; the Weaver’s Interior, and Dried Sunflowers from the Kröller-Müller Museum (located in the Hoge Veluwe National Park in Otterlo, Netherlands). In April 1989, the thieves returned Weaver’s Interior in hopes of receiving a $2.5 million ransom. The police were able to recover the other two Van Gogh paintings on July 14, 1989, but no ransom was paid.

On April 14, 1991, the Vincent van Gogh National Museum was robbed of twenty major paintings including the final version of The Potato Eaters. However, the getaway car caught a flat tire, forcing the criminals to flee and leave all of the paintings behind. The art was recovered just 35 minutes after the robbery.

Related Podcast – Art Crime Podcast Episode 13, Van Gogh, Going, Gone!

Related Van Gogh Biographical Info and Sources:
The Missing Paintings of Vincent van Gogh – artnet News
Peasant Painter – Van Gogh Museum
Parsonage, Etten, The Netherlands | Van Gogh Route
Source of quote from Vincent’s letter to Theo: 440 (443, 364): To Theo van Gogh. Nuenen, on or about Thursday, 20 March 1884. – Vincent van Gogh Letters

The Ed Ruscha print Steve Martin sold when he “angrily left L.A.”

Everyone knows Steve Martin is an avid collector and lifelong champion of the arts, but did you know his first purchase of art was a $125 print of Ed Ruscha’s Hollywood sign?

From LACMA’s curator notes: “Ed Ruscha first drew the Hollywood sign in 1967…Ruscha has joked that the sign was ‘a smog indicator: if I could read it, the weather was OK.'”

Ruscha’s series of Hollywood sign prints showcase the hallmarks we’ve come to associate with Ruscha; beautiful typography, sharp angles, and a word that speaks volumes.

“‘Hollywood’ is like a verb to me…It’s something you can do to any subject or any thing.”

Ed Ruscha
Schrafft’s Hollywood Study (Ed Ruscha, 1967), The Art Institute of Chicago

Above: This simple pen and pencil sketch on a placemat tells a wonderful origin story. It belongs to the prints and drawings collection at The Art Institute of Chicago.

We can see the origin of Ruscha’s Hollywood series on a placemat from the legendary Schrafft’s restaurants. There’s Ruscha’s signature diminishing perspective made famous by his Standard Station series and it appears he’s working out his preferred line of sight. In the upper-left of the placemat, the sketch includes the sign’s iconic position on a bluff in the Santa Monica Mountains, but he would later shift the perspective and sign’s position to the mountain ridge.

“The first thing I bought happened to be an Ed Ruscha print of Hollywood, the Hollywood sign. I bought it from Irving Blum’s gallery on La Cienega and I paid $125 for it, and I was very excited.”

Steve Martin

Surely the first piece of art Steve Martin ever purchased must still remain in his collection, especially from a titan like Ed Ruscha, someone Steve Martin would eventually call friend. Right? Sadly, the answer is no. According to a 2010 New York Times article, Martin explains, “It’s a long story…I sold it when I angrily left L.A.”

I would love to hear that long story, wouldn’t you?

Below: Here’s a wonderful primer on the art and life of Ed Ruscha

“Ed Ruscha: Buildings and Words” – YouTube

How Steve Martin Became an Art Collector, Art Gallery of Ontario
Ed Ruscha Hollywood screenprint in colors,
Hat tip to this 2010 tweet by Abigail De Kosnik
Steve Martin’s ‘Object of Beauty’ Tackles New York Art World, The New York Times
Schrafft’s Hollywood Study, 1967, The Art Institute of Chicago

The Ferris Bueller’s Day Off scene that introduced a generation to art appreciation

I’ve been thinking about Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, the museum scene.

The museum scene (filmed at the Art Institute of Chicago) is such a beautiful tribute to the power of museums. Three impressionable high school kids are happily immersed in the museum experience, they soak it in and become supremely moved by the art. They are downright reverent. George Seurat’s A Sunday on La Grande Jatte almost moves Cameron to tears.

I was 13 when Ferris Bueller’s Day Off arrived in theaters. I was very tall for my age, late-blooming, and way too sensitive. I think you get the picture. That museum scene is less than 2 minutes long, but it transported me, it lit me up. I felt equal parts exhilarated and exposed by that scene.

“Oh my god, I am Cameron,” was my unspoken response. I had father issues, I was not mentally well, and I was an embarrassed 13 year old boy who could be brought to tears by looking at beautiful things, like art.

Cameron stares into George Seurat’s A Sunday on La Grande Jatte and goes deeper, deeper, and deeper into the painting. He sees himself reflected in the face of a child, and he looks haunted by the experience. Meanwhile, an orchestral cover of The Smiths, Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want plays in the background. This scene is an emotional overload.

In the Ferris Bueller DVD audio commentary John Hughes explains, “The closer he [Cameron] looks at the child, the less he sees, of course, with this style of painting. The more he looks at it, there’s nothing there. He fears that the more you look at him there isn’t anything to see. There’s nothing there. That’s him.”

Ouch. I am Cameron.

But here’s the other thing that stuck with me for all of these years. This 1 minute and 54 seconds scene was my introduction to some of history’s greatest works of art. I was just some kid at a movie theater in the suburbs of Massachusetts until I was suddenly transported into the Art Institute of Chicago with Ferris, Sloane, and Cameron. Several shots in this museum montage are about 1:1 scale, director John Hughes drops us into the gallery and introduces us to vivid footage of Gustave Caillebotte, Paul Gauguin, Pablo Picasso, Alberto Giacometti, Jackson Pollock, Georges Seurat, and so on.

“This is a very indulgent scene of mine, this was the Chicago Art Institute, which when I was in high school–was a place of refuge for me. I went there quite a bit. I loved it. I knew all the paintings, I knew the building, and this was a chance for me to go back into this building and show the paintings that were my favorite,” said Hughes.

In the process, he initiated a generation of new art lovers. What a wonderful contribution and footnote to the John Hughes legacy.

Below: links to (almost) all of the art shown in the Ferris Bueller’s Day Off museum scene, in order of appearance…

Paris Street; Rainy Day | The Art Institute of Chicago
1877, Gustave Caillebotte, French, 1848-1894

Merahi metua no Tehamana (Tehamana Has Many Parents) | The Art Institute of Chicago
1893, Paul Gauguin, French, 1848-1903

Arlésiennes (Mistral) | The Art Institute of Chicago
1888, Paul Gauguin, French, 1848-1903

Nighthawks | The Art Institute of Chicago
1942, Edward Hopper, American, 1882–1967

Above. left:
The Red Armchair | The Art Institute of Chicago
1931, Pablo Picasso, Spanish, active France, 1881–1973

Improvisation No. 30 (Cannons) | The Art Institute of Chicago
1913, Vasily Kandinsky, French, born Russia, 1866–1944

Painting with Green Center | The Art Institute of Chicago
1913, Vasily Kandinsky, French, born Russia, 1866–1944

Three Men Walking II | The Art Institute of Chicago
1948/49, Alberto Giacometti, Swiss, 1901–1966

Nude under a Pine Tree | The Art Institute of Chicago
1959, Pablo Picasso, Spanish, active France, 1881-1973

Walking Man II | The Art Institute of Chicago
1960, Alberto Giacometti, Swiss, active France, 1901–1966

Woman before an Aquarium | The Art Institute of Chicago
1921–23, Henri Matisse, French, 1869–1954

The Old Guitarist | The Art Institute of Chicago
late 1903–early 1904, Pablo Picasso, Spanish, active France, 1881–1973

Winged Figure | The Art Institute of Chicago (Not fully shown)
1889, Abbott Handerson Thayer, American, 1849–1921

The Child’s Bath | The Art Institute of Chicago
1893, Mary Cassatt, American, 1844–1926

Jacques and Berthe Lipchitz | The Art Institute of Chicago
1916, Amedeo Modigliani, Italian, 1884–1920

Mahana no atua (Day of the God) | The Art Institute of Chicago
1894, Paul Gauguin, French, 1848-1903

The Plough and the Song | The Art Institute of Chicago (Not fully shown)
1946–47, Arshile Gorky, American, born Armenia, 1904–1948

Greyed Rainbow | The Art Institute of Chicago
1953, Jackson Pollock, American, 1912–1956

Bathers by a River | The Art Institute of Chicago 1909–10, 1913, and 1916–1917, Henri Matisse, French, 1869–1954

Above, right:
The Petite Creuse River | The Art Institute of Chicago
1889, Claude Monet, French, 1840-1926

Stacks of Wheat (Sunset, Snow Effect) | The Art Institute of Chicago
1890/91, Claude Monet, French, 1840-1926

Boats on the Beach at Étretat | The Art Institute of Chicago
1885, Claude Monet, French, 1840-1926

Woman in front of a Still Life by Cézanne | The Art Institute of Chicago
1890, Paul Gauguin, French, 1848-1903

Portrait of Sylvette David | The Art Institute of Chicago
1954, Pablo Picasso, Spanish, worked in France, 1881–1973

A Sunday on La Grande Jatte — 1884 | The Art Institute of Chicago
1884/86, Georges Seurat, French, 1859-1891

America Windows | The Art Institute of Chicago
1977, Marc Chagall, French, born Vitebsk, Russia (present-day Belarus), 1887–1985