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

Vincent van Gogh, Going, Gone!

Art Crime Podcast | Season 1, Episode 13

You think you know Vincent van Gogh, bro? We go deep into the Vincent van Gogh stacks; his letters, his Neunen studio diagrams, alternate and credible versions of how he lost part of an ear, his less discussed “Peasant Painter” period when he moved back in with his parents and his studio was adjacent to a cesspit. Mara reveals van Gogh’s buddy Paul Gauguin as the total creep he was — a helluva painter, but a terrible creep of a man. The painting at the center of our heist, ‘The Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in Spring’ triggers some flashbacks of scary paintings in Mara and Baker’s family homes. Our news is full of bad fakes of renowned artists, plus the story of a young couple who mistook an installation as an invitation to “interact” and leave some marks of their own. Awkward! Next, it’s onto the 2020 theft of Van Gogh’s ‘The Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in Spring’, a smash-and-grab job by some casually dressed guy with a sledgehammer. We tell you everything we know, including the most recent update direct from Arthur Brand (aka: the Indiana Jones of the art world!)

Episode References

The Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in Spring, by Vincent van Gogh
The Potato Eaters, by Vincent van Gogh
Weaver, Interior with Three Small Windows, by Vincent van Gogh
Sunflowers (1887), by Vincent van Gogh

Man admits stealing Andy Warhol paintings and attempting to sell fake versions on eBay | The Independent
All 18 works at show of Spanish artist Maruja Mallo were fakes, say experts | The Guardian
Magic: The Gathering Artist Issues Apology After Art Theft Claims | Bleeding Cool News
Young couple mistakenly vandalizes $440,000 painting in South Korea | Yahoo!
What Do You Do With a Stolen van Gogh? This Thief Knows | New York Times

Peasant Painter (Biographical Info) | Van Gogh Museum
Unsolved Art Heists: The Missing Paintings of Vincent van Gogh | artnet
To Theo van Gogh. Nuenen, on or about Thursday, 20 March 1884. | Vincent van Gogh Letters
The Doctor and Amy travel back in time to meet Vincent Van Gogh and face an invisible monster that only the painter can see. | YouTube
The Museum of the Legion of Honor | 2, rue de la Légion d’honneur (adjoining the Musée d’Orsay) Paris
Born to revolt: Why the French go on strike | France 24
Diagnosing Vincent Van Gogh | PBS News Hour
Security video from the Netherlands’ Singer Laren Museum shows the thief smashing his way through glass doors before leaving with the 1884 artwork tucked under his arm | NBC News

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