How do people steal art from museums?

Art theft in the NetherlandsVan Gogh as a commodity for serious criminals

Almost exactly a year ago, an early and nevertheless important Van Gogh painting was stolen from a museum in Laren in the Netherlands, which was on loan from the Groninger Museum in an exhibition. The perpetrator came on a motor scooter, smashed the glass front door, wandered through the museum shop, had the picture with him on the way back, got rid of the frame in front of the museum and drove up and away.

This week the police in Utrecht announced that a 58-year-old man has been arrested who is said to be involved not only in the Van Gogh theft, but also a few months later in an old master painting by Frans Hals.

Artwork for criminals

Although it is clear that such works of art cannot be sold to art lovers for a lot of money, they are repeatedly stolen by criminals. "In the past there have often been cases in Holland in which convicts could obtain exemption from imprisonment," said art critic Tobias Timm ("Die Zeit"). It is always a problem that works of art become a commodity for criminals.

(picture alliance / dpa / Koen Van Weel) Burglary at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam in 1991
On April 14, 1991 there was a spectacular break-in at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam: several perpetrators stole 20 paintings by Van Gogh worth several million euros.

In the present case, however, it did not work as planned.

Artur Brand, a well-known art detective in the Netherlands, first tracked down the stolen works of art. In the course of his research, he found out that a criminal had acquired the very expensive Van Gogh picture after the theft for only 150,000 euros, and then quickly sold it on to a drug smuggler who was already in custody for 400,000 euros.

"The theory is that the decryption of crypto cell phones by the police caused a stir," said Timm. The French and Dutch police have been able to solve numerous crimes in the past few months because they have worked closely together and "were able to follow the chat history of the dealers and gangsters."

No exemption from liability

The excitement in criminal circles, according to Timm, was great, "so that one criminal wanted to get rid of Van Gogh quickly to the other who was in custody." But the Dutch government did not allow itself to be blackmailed and did not offer any prospect of a release from prison.

However, this means that the valuable works of art remain lost. Nobody knows whether the works will be kept well and not badly damaged.

(dpa / ANP / EPA / ILVY NJIOKIKTJIEN) Enigma about Van Gogh pictures - Theo or Vincent?
The painter Vincent van Gogh painted many self-portraits. Again and again, however, doubts arise as to whether the man in the pictures might not be his brother Theo. Researchers in the Netherlands are now coming to surprising results.

Easy loot

An art market for serious criminals has now established itself. "A trading system like on the art market." Obviously, it is often easy to steal the expensive and irretrievable works from museums.

The Van Gogh's thieves didn't have much trouble either. "When you watch the video, it feels like a simple walk. Go into the exhibition and get the art out."