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

Celebrating the Life of Charles Hill, Legendary Art Recovery Detective

“A masterpiece will tell you itself that it’s a masterpiece, it jumps out at you.” – Charles Hill

The art world lost a legend on February 22nd, 2021. Although famous for his 1994 recovery of Munch’s The Scream, retired detective Charles Hill said, “My greatest thrill was finding Vermeer’s Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid, which was stolen from Russborough House in 1986…”[Source: Country Life Magazine| March 16, 2009]

“If Prince Valiant and Philip Marlowe shared custody of a single body,’ says Edward Dolnick, who wrote Stealing the Scream, ‘the result might resemble Charley.’” [Source: Country Life Magazine| March 16, 2009]

“It’s exhilarating to get what you’re going for back. I can actually recover these things and feel as if I’m doing my bit for creation.”

Charles Hill

Tributes from the Art Recovery World

Association for Research into Crimes against Art (ARCA) CEO, Lynda Albertson wrote a beautiful tribute for the @ARCA_artcrime blog, as seen and linked in the tweet below:

“His friends called him Charley, never Charles and certainly not Charlie.”

Lynda Albertson
Charles Hill, Art Detective ‘How I recovered The Scream’ – Witness – BBC News

Charles Hill developed an alter-ego for his undercover work, assuming the character Chris Roberts during his 1994 recovery of Munch’s The Scream.

“The character I came up with was Chris Roberts, was a slightly dodgy, mid-Atlantic accented art dealer who was doing some buying for the Getty Museum in Europe,” said Hill.

This was not the first time Hill took on the persona of Chris Roberts. In a Country Life Magazine from March, 2009, Hill explained that sometime in 1983 he, “…put on a mid-Atlantic accent and posed as an art dealer who had Arab buyers lined up for the Vermeer. (i.e. Vermeer’s Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid)

Related Podcast Episode:
Kindly Stop Stealing the Munch! / Art Crime Podcast | Season 1, Episode 6

The art heist book plot considered “worryingly plausible” by the National Galleries of Scotland

Author Ian Rankin revealed on Twitter that a National Galleries of Scotland (NGS) boss forbid filming in its galleries for the 2012 movie adaptation of Rankin’s 2008 novel, Doors Open.

Doors Open tells the story of three friends who plan a heist to “liberate” works of art from NGS storage. In reaction to a tweet recommending the new Netflix art heist series, Lupin, visual artist and NGS copywriter assistant Greag Mac a’ tSaoir was reminded of the Rankin thriller.

“…I read @Beathhigh’s Doors Open, about a gang robbing the NGS stores and it was like a personalised four hundred page anxiety attack,” tweeted Mac a’tSaoir.

Rankin responded to the @ and revealed that his plot was so good, the NGS took note. “They wouldn’t let us film in Edinburgh – boss of NGS said the plot was worryingly plausible…” tweeted Rankin.

That is high praise for the imagination of Rankin. He created a plot so good, NGS staff had a collective anxiety attack! No doubt there was an internal NGS meeting or two regarding the novel.

In consideration of a future printing of Doors Open, I’d like to recommend the following pull quote for the book’s cover…

“Worryingly plausible!”

Boss, National Galleries of Scotland