September 30, 2016

2 Vincent Van Gogh Paintings Recovered in Italy, Suspected Camorra Entanglements

Breaking News - This article will be updated periodically as ARCA is able to release more news.


The FBI's "Top Ten" unresolved Art Crimes has now been reduced to nine thanks to the dedication and hard work of a division of Italy's Corpo della Guardia di Finanza, which probes financial crimes related to organised crime.  Together with the Italian Public Prosecutions office, the Naples Direzione distrettuale antimafia and dedicated Dutch investigators, two of Vincent Van Gogh's historic paintings have finally been recovered during a labor intensive investigation into Italy's organized crime syndicate that is an offshoot of the Camorra.

Fourteen years after their theft from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam on December 7, 2002 the two paintings have been recovered during search and seizure operations connected to an ongoing international cocaine trafficking and mafia racketeering investigation.  The artworks were recovered earlier this week in the Castellammare di Stabia area in the Bay of Naples but were kept under wraps as the investigation finalized certain details.

In January 2016 Italian authorities arrested several individuals long suspected of overseas money laundering and international drug trafficking.  Two of those were affiliated with the Scampia splinter group of the Naples clan.  Raffaele Imperiale was the suspected head of the clan, also had ties to Amsterdam, where he reportedly owns or owned an Amsterdam coffeshop.

Until a few months before his arrest Imperiale had been living with his family in one of the most luxurious hotels in the world, the Burj Al Arab in Dubai, where a room costs upwards of €1500 per night.  Mario Cerrone, a clan affiliate turned state witness, is reported to have been the one who led the police to the paintings location -- Raffaele Imperiale's house at Castellammare di Stabia.

The art works recovered are:

View of the Sea at Scheveningen, 1882
by Vincent van Gogh
oil on canvas, 13 inches x 20 inches
Completed in Scheveningen


This small picture is considered to be one of Van Gogh's finest masterworks. Painted directly on the beach in Scheveningen where the famous Post-Impressionist artist set up his easel and painted “plein-air” (in the open air), Van Gogh's signature style of thickly applied paint still contained grains of sand which had blow onto the canvas and stuck to the paint as the artist worked. 

When ARCA asked investigators who had facilitated the identifications after the recovery of the painting if they had physical access to the paintings and if they could see these fine grains of sand, the investigator responded happily “I have seen them today. And I have smelt the sea.

In terms of its condition, the painting appears to have sustained some damage to the paint in the lower left corner which has flaked off or had been broken away in a 5 x 2 cm area. 

Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen 1884 - 1885
by Vincent Van Gogh
oil on canvas 41.3 x 32.1 cm
Completed in Nuenen


This painting has been stolen on two occasions.  The first time was on April 14, 1991 when a total of twenty Van Gogh artworks were snatched from the Vincent Van Gogh Museum.  All twenty artworks were recovered in Amsterdam within 24 hours and the four perpetrators involved in that museum heist, including one museum guard and a former employee of the museum's security firm, were arrested and ultimately prosecuted.

Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen appears to have been recovered in fairly good condition.


Outline of the 2002 Van Gogh Museum Theft

Theft Venue: The Van Gogh Museum. The Van Gogh Museum houses the largest collection of the Post Impressionist Dutch masters artworks. In total more than 200 paintings and 600 drawings. 
Location: Amsterdam, the Netherlands
Location in Venue: Rietveld Building
Victim (Owner): Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen is owned by the Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture and Science. View of the Sea at Scheveningen is the property of the Van Gogh Museum 

Time of Theft:  Between 7:00 and 8:00 am on December 7, 2002
Open/Closed: Closed. The robbery occurred shortly before opening time.
Duration of Crime: Estimated at less than thirty minutes.
When Discovered: Immediately. When thieves smashed a window and entered the museum it triggered the museum security systems. 
Primary Object(s) Taken: Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen, 1884 and View of the Sea at Scheveningen, 1882 both by artist Vincent Van Gogh
Category of Art Object(s): Both artworks are small oil on canvas paintings
Ancillary Object(s) Touched: None
Ancillary Object(s) Taken: None
Clues Left at Crime Scene: At the entry point thieves left behind a cloth, likely used to reduce the sound of breaking glass,  one ladder, and a rope. They also left objects used to hide their identities, these last two items were found on the steps of the museum.

Suspected Related Crimes: Suspect Octave Durham’s reputation as a thief had already earned him the moniker “the Monkey” for his artful dodger activities. 

Entry Method: Thieves used a 15-foot ladder propped up against a first-story window at the rear of the building. The glass window was then smashed with cloth-covered hands or alternative instruments in order for the men to gain entry. 
Exit Method: Same method as entry.
Operational Method: The thieves went straight to the two stolen paintings, each ripped one off the wall, and then ran back to the broken window.
Other Methods of Note: Only method of concealment: head coverings

Probable Motive: possibly financial, possibly organised crime related
Followup after Theft: After the suspects were identified from museum security cameras, police tracked the men for over a year in both the Netherlands and Spain.  Law enforcement then wire-tapped the suspects’ phones. Eleven suspicious phone conversations are documented between February 17, 2003 and May 7, 2004.  Police tracked the men for over a year in both the Netherlands and Spain.
Revised Motive Theory: Financial gain. Based on the phone conversations and the suspiciously extravagant spending of the suspects after the theft, we can assume the paintings were sold for a large sum of money. 

Identified People Involved in the Crime
Handler(s): ?
Accomplice(s): Dutch-born Octave Durham, A.K.A. "The Monkey" and Henk Bieslijn
Organization(s) Involved: Investigators suspect possible Italian Mafia (Camorra) involvement.
Ultimate Possessor: Unknown.
Arrests: In 2004, police arrested Octave Durham in Spain and Henk Bieslijn in Amsterdam.
Total Length of Investigation: Ongoing
In March 2010 Giovanni Nistri, of the Comando Carabinieri Tutela Patrimonio Culturale stated that he believed that the pair stole the paintings on behalf of the Neapolitan Camorra. According to him at the time, there were "important clues to allow the presumption that members of the Neapolitan Camorra were somehow involved in the theft and the consequent possession of the two paintings. 
Evidence Used In Prosecution: Witness Testimony, CCTV Footage, 11 wire-tapped phone conversations, DNA evidence collected at the scene from discarded headgear found on the scene.  Financial records of the suspects directly after the theft which included suspicious purchases of high value including: watches, new furniture, home renovations, and foreign travel to Thailand, Euro Disney, Ibiza, and the Dominican Republic.
Criminal Sentencing: Octave Durham received a prison sentence of 4.5 years. Henk Bieslijn received a prison sentence of 4 years. In addition, each were ordered to pay the Van Gogh Museum €350,000 in damages. Each denied responsibility.

Artwork Recovered: Yes, in moderately good shape, the week of September 25, 2016

Why Steal Van Gogh?

Van Gogh, who in his lifetime only sold one painting commands big figures in the contemporary art world. Eight masterpieces by Van Gogh paintings are ranked among the world's 50 most expensive artworks ever sold.    Echoing that, the  wave pattern of art theft often mirrors the whimsy of the art market. Then thieves follow the path of least protection or resistance striking at objects known to be of value in places that allow for the opportunity.

How many Vincent Van Gogh artworks have been stolen? 


When opportunity has knocked, art thieves have often had a preference for works of art attributed to Vincent Van Gogh.   But just how many artworks by Vincent van Gogh have been stolen?  Take a look here. 

By: Lynda Albertson

When opportunity has knocked, art thieves often have a preference for works of art attributed to Vincent Van Gogh

When opportunity has knocked, art thieves have often had a preference for works of art attributed to Vincent Van Gogh.   But just how many artworks by Vincent van Gogh have been stolen?



Taking a look inside ARCA's database of art crimes involving the artist Vincent Van Gogh By our count, 36 Van Gogh works of art have been stolen,   3 of them two times each, over the course of 14 separate art thefts.

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Stolen in 1937 - The Lovers: The Poet's Garden IV, 1888 Known only to the art world through an 1888 letter from Vincent Van Gogh to his brother, Theo, this artwork, likely an oil on canvas was completed that same year the letter was sent and may have been stolen by the Nazis.  The only image known of the artwork is the sketch the artist sent with his letter.  This work of art has never been recovered. 

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June 4, 1977 - Poppy Flowers (also known as Vase And Flowers and Vase with Viscaria) 1887 was stolen from Cairo's Mohamed Mahmoud Khalil Museum and later recovered only to be stolen again in 2010. 

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February 17, 1975 – Van Gogh watercolour Breton Women (after Emile Bernard) also known as Les bretonnes et le pardon de pont Aven was one of 28 works of art stolen from the Galleria d'Arte Moderna in Milan, Italy. The painting was recovered in an apartment registered to an alias in Milan on April 6, 1975 only to be stolen a second time one month later. See the individual theft post here.

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May 15, 1975 - Van Gogh watercolour Breton Women (after Emile Bernard) also known as Les bretonnes et le pardon de pont Aven was stolen for a second time along with 37 other Impressionist and Postimpressionist works of art from the Galleria d'Arte Moderna in Milan, Italy. This follow-up theft included many of same artworks previously taken in during the February 17, 1975 theft. The Van Gogh was recovered on November 2, 1975 in what was then West Germany along with ten other stolen artworks from the Galleria d'Arte Moderna. See the individual theft post here.

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May 20, 1988 - Three paintings Vase with Carnations (1886) by Vincent Van Gogh, La maison du maître Adam Billaud à Nevers (The House of Master Adam Billaud at Nevers) painted in 1874 by Johan Barthold Jongkind and Bouteilles et pêches” (Bottles and peaches) painted in 1890 by Paul Cézanne were stolen from the Stedelijk Museum, next door to the Van Gogh Museum on the Museumplein in Amsterdam.  All three works of art were recovered undamaged by police posing as potential buyers.  See the individual theft post here.

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December 12, 1988 -  Three Van Goghs worth an estimated €113 million euros were stolen from the The Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo about 60 miles east of Amsterdam. The stolen works of art included the second of three painted sketches titled De aardappeleters, (the potato eaters) completed in 1885, as well as two other works Four Cut Sunflowers, also known as 'Overblown Sunflowers from August-September 1887 and Loom with Weaver in 1884.  All three paintings were recovered but had sustained damages.  See the individual theft post here.

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June 28, 1990 - Three early Van Gogh paintings, Digging farmer, 1885-87, Brabant Peasant, seated, 1884-1885, and Wheels of the Water Mill in Gennep were stolen from the Het Noordbrabants Museum in Den Bosch, Netherlands. The Digging Farmer was found in 1991 in a bank safe in Belgium. The other two paintings were returned in 1994 via negotiations with a tertiary party.  See the individual theft post here.

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April 14, 1991 - 20 paintings by Vincent van Gogh are stolen from the Vincent Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. Three of the 20 paintings were severely damaged. All 20 paintings were recovered within 24 hours. Four perpetrators, including one museum guard and a former employee of the museum's security firm were arrested in July 1991.  See the entire list of artworks and the individual theft post here.

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May 19, 1998  -  The prestigious Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna in Rome was robbed by three armed with guns,just before closing time. The criminals stole two paintings by Vincent Van Gogh's L'Arlésienne, 1889 and Le Jardinier, October 1889 and Paul Cézanne's Cabanon de Jourdan, 1906.  On July 5, 1998 8 suspects were arrested and all three paintings recovered.   See the individual theft post here.

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May 13-15, 1999 - the Vincent van Gogh painting, The Willow, was stolen from the headquarters of F. van Lanschot Bankiers NV in Den Bosch. The painting was recovered in 2006.  Two suspects were arrested. See the individual theft post here.

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December 7, 2002 - Two thieves using a ladder break in to the Van Gogh Museum making off with two paintings, View of the Sea at Scheveningen (1882) and Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen (1884). Following an intensive Dutch investigation, Two Dutchmen, Octave Durham, A.K.A. "The Monkey" and Henk Bieslijn are arrested in 2004 for their roles in the burglary. Durham received a prison sentence of 4.5 years. Henk Bieslijn was sentenced to 4 years incarceration. Each were ordered to pay the Van Gogh Museum €350,000 in damages and both denied responsibility.  The paintings were lost for 14 years only to resurface in late September in the Castellammare di Stabia area in the Bay of Naples.   During a blitz by Italian law enforcement on an illicit cocaine trafficking ring operated by  Italy's organized crime syndicate the Camorra the paintings were recovered.  See individual theft post here. 

April 26, 2003 - Three paintings including Van Gogh's The Fortification of Paris with Houses, Picasso's Poverty and Gauguin's Tahitian Landscape were taken from The Whitworth Art Gallery at The University of Manchester. The works of art were found the next day crammed into a tube behind a public toilet in Manchester's Whitworth Park. See the individual theft post here.

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February 10, 2008 - Four paintings were stolen at gunpoint from a private Zürich gallery run by the Foundation E.G. Bührle in Switzerland. The paints were Blossoming Chestnut Branches by Vincent Van Gogh, Paul Cezanne's Boy in the Red Waistcoat, Claude Monet's Poppies near Vétheuil and Edgar Degas' Count Lepic and His Daughters.  The Van Gogh and Monet were recovered on February 18, 2008.  The Degas was recovered in April 2012.  Cezanne's Boy in the Red Waistcoat was recovered April 12, 2012.  See the individual theft post here.

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August 21, 2010Poppy Flowers (also known as Vase And Flowers and Vase with Viscaria) 1887 was stolen for a second time from the Mohamed Mahmoud Khalil Museum in Cairo.  Its whereabouts are unknown. 

By Lynda Albertson

September 29, 2016

February 10, 2008 - Museum Theft, Foundation E.G. Bührle, Switzerland


An art heist at gunpoint occurred on February 10, 2008 at a private Zürich gallery run by the Foundation E.G. Bührle in Switzerland. Emil Bührle was a German-born industrialist who sold arms to the Nazis during World War II.  The private museum was Established by the Bührle family foundation in order to bring Emil Georg Bührle's collection, of mostly  European sculptures and paintings to the public. The art collection is housed in an elegant Zurich villa which adjoins Bührle's former residence.

On the day of the heist, three thieves rushed the gallery shortly before its set closing time.  Brandishing a handgun, the staff on duty were ordered to lie on the floor after which the thieves removed four late nineteenth century artworks from the wall.  

The artworks taken were

Blossoming Chestnut Branches, 1890
by Vincent Van Gogh
Oil on canvas 72.0 x 91.0 cm
Completed in Auvers-sur-Oise

Poppies near Vétheuil, 1879
by Claude Monet

Count Lepic and His Daughters, 1871
by Edgar Degas

Boy in the Red Waistcoat, 1895
by Paul Cézanne 
oil on canvas: overall: 89.5 x 72.4 cm

Eight days later two of the stolen paintings, Poppies near Vétheuil and Blossoming Chestnut Branches, were found on February 18, 2008. The paintings were discovered undamaged in the rear seat of the unlocked getaway car that had been abandoned in the parking area of a nearby Zurich psychiatric hospital just a short distance away from the Bührle.

The painting Poppies near Vétheuil by Edgar Degas, regarded as one of the founders of Impressionism, was recovered in April 2012.  Information about its recover was withheld from the public to avoid compromising ongoing investigations with Swiss and Serbian authorities who were still actively to recover the final painting by Paul Cézanne.

Lukas Gloor, director of the E.G. Buehrle Collection, speaks at a news conference
in front of the recovered paintings 'Blossoming Chestnut Branches,'
by Vincent van Gogh, Credit Christian Hartmann/Reuters
Cezanne's £68.3million The Boy in the Red Vest was recovered was discovered in ta hidden roof car panel of a suspects car in Belgrade, Serbia on April 12, 2012. 








April 26, 2003 - Museum Theft, The Whitworth Art Gallery at The University of Manchester, Manchester, England

Sometime after 9 pm on April 26, 2003 three works of art, estimated to be worth £4 million, were stolen from the Whitworth Art Gallery at The University of Manchester in England. 

The thief or thieves are believed to have entered the Whitworth by applying force to the rear steel-covered doors. The artworks were then removed from the Margaret Pilkington room. 

The paintings taken were:

The Fortifications of Paris with Houses (The Ramparts of Paris), Summer 1887
by Vincent Van Gogh
Watercolor, gouache, chalk and pencil on paper, 40 x 54 cm


Poverty (Les Misérables), 1903 Barcelona
by Pablo Picasso 
Ink and blue watercolour, 37.5 x 26.7cm


and

Tahitian Landscape, 1891-93
by Paul Gauguin
Watercolour and pencil on paper, 16 x 27 cm


Thanks to an anonymous tipster, possibly by the culprit, the three artworks were located by police on Monday, April 28, 2003.  They were found in a disused public lavatory in Manchester's Whitworth Park, less than a quarter mile away from the museum.  The artworks were not treated delicately and were retrieved from of a soggy tube where they had been rolled up carelessly and stuffed inside.

The paintings had suffered from exposure to humidity and the Van Gogh artwork suffered a tear.

A handwritten note found by Police officers where the art works were found lamented on the poor security at the the Whitworth. The note read "the intention was not to steal. only to highlight the woeful security."



May 13, 1999 - Private Collection Theft, F. van Lanschot Bankiers NV, Den Bosch, The Netherlands

Vincent Van Gogh The Willow, 1885 with Dr. H,J, Hijmersma,
conservator to the F. van Lanschot Bankiers NV Collection
Sometime between the evening of May 13 and the morning of May 15 in 1999 a Vincent van Gogh painting The Willow was stolen from the headquarters of F. van Lanschot Bankiers NV in Den Bosch in the Netherlands. s-Hertogenbosch is the official name of the city, but colloquially almost everybody refers to the city as Den Bosch, which translates in English to mean 'the Duke’s Forest'. 

In March 2006 the bank contacted authorities stating that a gentleman had approached them asking about a reward for information leading to the recovery of the stolen work of art.  F. van Lanschot Bankiers NV, the oldest bank in the Netherlands.

Two suspects, the seller, who was at one time a cleaner for the bank and the would-be award seeker were then approached by undercover officers posing as insurance loss adjusters as part of a sting operation.  

The painting was recovered and is now back in the bank's collection.  

Both individuals were arrested.

By Lynda Albertson

May 19, 1998 - Museum Theft, Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna, Rome

On May 19, 1998 Rome's prestigious Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna was robbed just after the 10 pm closing time. Armed with guns, three thieves entered the museum just before closing time. Barefoot and having donned gloves and balaclavas to hide their identities they then stormed the control room. There they gagged two of the three female guards and forced a third to disable the museum's security alarm system and hand over CCTV footage. hey then locked all three women in a bathroom before proceeding to the Impressionist hall.  

Once in the gallery, they bypassed paintings by Edgar Degas and Gustav Klimt and stole three paintings:

L'Arlésienne, 1889 (one of five versions)
by Vincent Van Gogh  (unsigned)
oil on canvas, 60x50 cm
Completed in  Saint-Rémy


Le Jardinier, October 1889
by Vincent Van Gogh (unsigned)
oil on canvas, 61 x 50 cm
Completed in  Saint-Rémy


and

Cabanon de Jourdan, 1906
by Paul Cézanne
oil on canvas 65 x 81 cm
The last artwork completed tby the artist before his death in Aix-en-Provence


From start to finish the art theft lasted only 15 minutes. 

From the beginning of their investigation art crime detectives in Italy suspected that there had to be an insider working with the thieves; someone who had firsthand knowledge of who would be working in the museum that evening and possibly familiarity with the museums security apparatus. 

Law enforcement officers with the Carabinieri Tutela Patrimonio Culturale and the Squadra Mobile di Roma began their investigation by conducting a prolonged examination of all 160 individuals who worked at the museum.  They needed to narrow down who might be inclined to collaborate with criminals or who might benefit from the proceeds to be made from stolen art. 

Tentative suspects were kept under surveillance and as the squad honed in on each of their suspects, phones were tapped.  Police bided their time for more than a month listening and analysing information as they gathered evidence on who and how many people were involved and most importantly, just where the paintings might have been stashed. 

While they waited they learned that some of the suspects had met one another serving time in prison in Brussels, one of them for a violent robbery of a postal truck. This further helped to paint a clear picture that the group was not beyond the use of violence.  

Proceeding carefully officers were sure that the theft was not merely an opportunistic crime by an impulsive group of individuals but one carried out by a group of individuals who knew one another well and who weren't afraid to get their hands dirty.

As days passed, the thieves faced difficulties finding a buyer.  The criminals began to get irritable and at one point started fighting amongst themselves.  In one instance one of the suspects was so sloppy that he openly complained during a tapped phone conversation that he knew the police were onto them. 

As the band of criminals began to unravel law enforcement knew they had to move quickly before the team did something desperate.  The investigators' intel revealed that the paintings had been split up. Van Gogh's Le Jardinier and Cézanne's Cabanon de Jourdan had been brought back to Rome after a purported sale fell through, while  L'Arlésienne was left behind in Turin.   

But where? 

After 48 days, investigators decided they had sufficient evidence to identify the probable locations of the three paintings and the ability to make simultaneous arrests of all accomplices at the same time to ensure that no one fled or shifted the stolen artworks elsewhere. 

On July 5, 1998 officers moved in and arrested 8 suspects, some with a small arsenal of firearms. The motley team was a hodgepodge of run-of-the-mill criminals including a husband and wife team, one of whom worked inside the museum.  Others in the band seemed the type Hollywood would model film characters out of. 

Van Gogh's Le Jardinier and Cézanne's Cabanon de Jourdan were recovered in good condition during a raid of an apartment in the periphery of Rome.  One painting had been crudely packaged in a cardboard box and hidden under a bed while the other was wrapped in a blanket and stuffed in a closet.

L'Arlésienne was recovered in an apartment in Turin along with 6 weapons, including a machine gun. 

The criminals convicted and their sentences imposed

Oeneus Ximenes - considered the mastermind received a sentence of 8 years imprisonment
Roberto Petruzzi - received a sentence of 8 years imprisonment
Stefania Viglongo - the museum insider received a sentence of 8 years imprisonment
Maurizio Possetto - received a sentence of 7 years imprisonment 
Claudio Trevisan - received 6 years and 4months imprisonment 
Anna Rita Sinti (daughter of Alexander Sinti and the partner of Ximenes) - received 4.5 years imprisonment
Alessandro Sinti - (father of Anna Rita Sinti) - received 3 years and 4 months imprisonment.  
Alfonso Di Febio (husband of Viglongo) - received 2 years and 8 months imprisonment.

By Lynda Albertson 

June 28, 1990 - Museum Theft, Het Noordbrabants Museum, Den Bosch, The Netherlands


At around 12:30 in the morning on June 28, 1990 three early Van Gogh paintings were stolen from the Het Noordbrabants Museum in Den Bosch, Netherlands. s-Hertogenbosch is the actual official name of the city, but colloquially almost everybody calls the city Den Bosch, which translates in English to mean 'the Duke’s Forest' .

The artworks taken were: 

Brabant Peasant, seated Study for the Potato Eaters (also known as Farmer's Wife Seated)  Dec 1884 - April 1885
oil on paper on panel 36 X 26.5 cm
Completed in Nuenen


Digging Farmer (also known as Digging Farmer's Wife), 1885-1887
oil on canvas, 37.5 X 25.7 cm
Completed in Nuenen


Wheels of the Mill, Genneper, 1884
oil on canvas,  61.5 x 80.5 cm
Completed in Nuenen


Van Gogh painted about a quarter of his entire body of works, including these three artworks, in Nuenen, less than 20 miles from the Het Noordbrabants Museum.

On the morning of the theft, the culprit(s) profited from a relatively sophisticated, but nonfunctioning, alarm system.  Set to go off when it sensed movement, the system failed to either signal the unauthorised entry or a malfunction in the sensors.  The burglar(s) entered the unmanned museum undetected simply by breaking an unalarmed ground floor window which in turn allowed access the museum's collection.

Once inside the criminal(s) quickly absconded with the three early 19th-Century Dutch Impressionist artworks, estimated at the time to be worth from USD $ 2.7 million to $5.4 million.

The theft marked the third theft of Van Gogh works in just two years. 

All was not lot however.  The Digging Farmer was found over a year later in a bank safe in Eeklo, Belgium.

The other two paintings, Brabant Peasant, seated and Wheels of the Mill, Genneper, were returned in relatively good condition to the museum via a prosecutor, Mr. D. van der Bel Middelburg working in The Hague and a lawyer representing a defendant in a totally unrelated case from Amsterdam. Listed in judicial records as simply an 'informer' he is not believed to have been one of the original thieves rather an opportunist who hoped to influence the outcome of his own case by providing information on other criminal's handiwork.

By: Lynda Albertson

December 12, 1988 - Museum Theft, Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo, The Netherlands

At a time in the late 80s when Van Gogh's paintings were listed on the "Top 10 Prices Paid for Paintings" at two of the world's two premiere auction houses, Christie's and Sotheby's stealing Vincent's artwork might have seen like a fast way to make money. Van Gogh's touchingly poignant Irises, painted in 1889 during the last year before his death at the asylum at St.Remy had recently sold on November 11, 1987 for $53.9 million, the highest price ever paid for an artwork at auction.

Perhaps with this in mind, and perhaps because the Kröller-Müller Museum holds the second-largest collection of the Post-Impressionist master in the world, with almost 90 paintings and over 180 drawings attributed to Vincent Van Gogh, the thieves decided to strike the Otterlo museum on December 12, 1988.  The entered the museum by breaking one of the windows and then made off with three artworks worth an estimated €113 million euros.

The works stolen included: 

The second of three painted sketches titled 
De aardappeleters, (the potato eaters), April - May 1885
oil on canvas mounted on panel, 31.5 x 42.5 cm
Completed in Neunen


Loom with Weaver, 1885
oil on canvas, 70 x 85 cm
Completed in Neunen


and

Four Cut Sunflowers, August-September 1887
oil on canvas,  60.0 x 100.0 cm
Completed in Paris 



Loom with Weaver was returned, possibly as a gesture for negotiation in April 1989.  The two thieves then tried to exact a $2.5 million ransom for the remaining two paintings. The police recovered the works on July 13, 1989. 

While no ransom was paid, the artworks did sustain damages.  Two men were sentenced to 3.5 and 5 years respectively for their roles in the crime.

By: Lynda Albertson

May 20, 1988 - Museum Theft, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, The Netherlands

In the early morning hours of May 20, 1988, the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, located on the Museumplein, was hit with its one and only museum theft to date. The value of the stolen works, which became part of the collection between 1949 and 1951, were estimated by the museum's director Wilhelmus Beeren to be between 25 to 100 million Dutch gilder, the currency of the Netherlands from the 17th century until 2002. 

The Stedelijk was equipped with an electronic alarm system but at the time of the break-in the museum was unmanned.  An alarm went off at five in the morning which prompted the private security service hired by the museum, and who monitored the alarm system from a central office, to contact the Amsterdam police 20 minutes later.

Upon arriving on the scene, law enforcement found a broken window. An inspection of the museum by staff who were called soon revealed that three paintings had been taken from a room near the entrance of the museum. 

The paintings stolen during the burglary were:

Vase with Carnations, 1886 
by Vincent van Gogh 
oil on canvas, 46.0 x 37.5 cm


Bouteilles et pêches (Bottles and Peaches), 1890
By Paul Cézanne
oil on canvas, 49 x 51 cm


and

La maison du maître Adam Billaud à Nevers (The House of Master Adam Billaud at Nevers) 1874 
By Johan Barthold Jongkind
oil on canvas, 56.5 x 42.5 cm


Interviewed shortly after the theft Director Wilhelmus Beeren stated that the theft could have been done by experts perhaps on a "Made to Order" basis citing the fact that the museum contained many other, more valuable works of art and given the thief also chose to make-off with the paintings' frames. 

Eleven days later, on 31 May 1988, all three paintings were recovered undamaged by police, who had posed as potential buyers interested in Post-Impressionist art when dealing with the criminal. The culprit was then arrested for the burglary and convicted.

By: Lynda Albertson

May 15, 1975 - Museum Theft, Galleria d'Arte Moderna, Milan


On the evening of February 17, 1975, twenty-eight Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works of art were stolen from the Galleria d'Arte Moderna in Milan.  In total works of art by Vincent Van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, Paul Cezanne, Auguste Renoir, Amedeo Modigliani, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, the 16th century Flemish master Adrien Van Utrecht, Francoise Millet, Giovanni Fatter, Telemaco Signorini, and Giovanni Segatini were stolen.  The theft occurred despite the presence of watchmen on the premises, who were assigned to regularly patrol the museum and in theory who were required to make ten rounds of the exhibition spaces during each shift.  

To accomplish their crime criminals broke into the museum through an unalarmed first floor window.  They then mounted three flights of stairs and once in the upper Grassi Gallery proceeded to cut the artworks free of their frames, leaving them in a horrifying discarded heap. 

Van Gogh watercolour Breton Women (after Emile Bernard)
also known as Les bretonnes et le pardon de pont Aven
stolen from the Galleria d’Arte Moderna.
Stolen February 17, 1975 Recovered April 6, 1975
Stolen May 15, 1975 Recovered November 3, 1975
While no details of any arrests were announced in connection with the theft it is understood that the thieves may have demanded a hefty ransom and that this demand was most likely met. 

The works of art were conveniently recovered altogether on April 6, 1975, in an unoccupied sixth‐floor Milan apartment registered to an alias.  The apartment was later traced to Giuseppe Pennestri, an individual from Reggio Calabria living in Milan.   At the time they were recovered, and given their good condition the artworks were valued at USD $5 million.

While the Galleria d'Arte Moderna got its collection returned, by giving in and paying a thief's ransom, they encouraged further robberies.   Three months later, on May 15, 1975 thieves struck the museum for a second time.

As if to add insult to injury, the second theft made use of the same security vulnerabilities.  The thieves entered the museum via the exact same avenue taken earlier, as if the first theft was a dress rehearsal for the second grand performance.  They came in over the high wall around the museum and entered the building using a ladder to an upper floor window which had not been fitted with a burglar alarm. 

Once inside they reportedly overpowered four night watchmen.  Two were bound and gagged while making rounds and two were subsequently subdued in the Grassi Gallery where the criminals again made off with a substantial cache of paintings.

This time, 38 Impressionist and Postimpressionist works of art were stolen. Many of them, including Van Gogh's watercolour Breton Women (after Emile Bernard) were the same ones taken during the previous robbery, perhaps because the thieves were banking on a ransom having already been paid.

On June 17, 1975, during an routine traffic stop, Giuseppe Pennestri was arrested by Italian authorities while driving a Mercedes with New Zealand license plates under an assumed name, alongside a Yugoslavian also travelling with false identity papers. Pennestri would turn out to be a really unsavoury character with a record that included not only masterminding the museum thefts, possibly on both occasions, but also for a rap sheet which included homicide, drug dealing and facilitating prostitution as well as apparent ties to organized crime

Following a joint investigation involving Interpol and Italian and West German authorities 26 of the 38 artworks were ultimately recovered on November 2, 1975. 

Italian law enforcement officials arrested one suspect in Foligno while German authorities arrested three individuals in Duisburg, West Germany.  Fifteen of the paintings were found in Italy during a raid on an apartment owned by a wealthy businessman, Settimio Bianchi. Eleven other artworks, including the works by Van Gogh and Renoir were recovered in what was then West Germany along with nine other stolen artworks from the Galleria d'Arte Moderna.

By Lynda Albertson