Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Sensational Art Heists

The Van Gogh Museum Robbery

Van Gogh Museum
Van Gogh Museum

Probably one of the most recognized painters in the world is the 19th century Dutch master Vincent Van Gogh, most of whose works can be found at the museum named after him in the Netherlands. The Vincent Van Gogh Museum, located in the capital city Amsterdam, houses the largest collection of the artists paintings and sketches, which draws more than 1 million visitors every year. The museum has also attracted the attention of art thieves who are less interested in the paintings themselves than in the profit that can be gained from selling them on the black market or offering them up for ransom.

Sunflowers, Van Gogh
Sunflowers, Van Gogh

Two thieves likely envisioned such a plan when they stole 20 paintings, valued at $10 million each, from the museum in 1991, including Van Goghs most celebrated work, Sunflowers, the BBC reported. Amazingly the works were recovered hours later when police found them in the thieves getaway car but the burglars were long gone. Chances are they had difficulty selling the paintings and decided to give them up rather than risk getting caught by trying to ransom them.

The Sea at Scheveningen
The Sea at Scheveningen

Eleven years later, The Vincent Van Gogh Museum was robbed a second time. In the early morning hours of December 7, 2002, thieves propped a ladder up against the rear of the museum and climbed 15 feet up to a first story window. They used a large cloth to protect their hands as they smashed through the glass to gain entry into the building. It took only minutes for the thieves to run to the main exhibition hall and steal two paintings, View of the Sea at Scheveningen and Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen, valued at $3 million dollars. The men then returned to the broken window, climbed out and slid down a rope to the ground before running off with the two paintings. Even though the break in immediately triggered an alarm, the police were not able to get to the museum fast enough to apprehend the robbers.

Congregation Leaving Church
Congregation Leaving Church

As the police tried to hunt the thieves down, forensic officers conducted a full-scale search of the building and surrounding area in the hopes of finding clues that would reveal the identity of the perpetrators. Luckily, they were able to find quite a bit of evidence. Not only did the thieves leave behind the cloth, ladder and rope used in the break in but also a cap and a hat, which were found shortly after the theft on the steps of the museum, Jan Geerling stated in an article posted on the museums website. The evidence left behind proved to be extremely valuable.

In December 2003, police tracked down two main suspects in the crime, a Dutch international art thief named Octave Durham (aka The Monkey), 31, who was captured in Puerto Banus, Spain, and his compatriot and accomplice Henk B., 31, who was arrested in Amsterdam. The men were eventually tried for the theft, even though they claimed innocence. However, DNA samples taken from the two hats found at the crime scene proved otherwise and they were found guilty of the robbery. Octave received 4 years in prison, whereas Henk received 4 years.

Unfortunately, even though the men were captured, the paintings still have not been recovered. It is believed that the men exchanged the art for a large sum of money. Yet, there is also a chance they could have hid the stolen goods, which legally might work in their favor.

Due to a gap in Dutch law, art thieves can become the owners of stolen private art after 20 years and 30 years for publicly-owned artworks that were stolen, Julian Radcliffe, the director of the London-based Art Loss Register said in a January 2005 Expatica.com article. That is, if they can prove that they stole the paintings. The evidence they conveniently left at the crime scene will attest to that. Chances are that they just might get their cake and eat it too, if theyre smart enough. Dutch lawmakers are currently thinking of revising the law that has likely led to an upsurge in art heists in recent years. There is a chance that once the law is changed, the Netherlands might not be as appealing to art thieves who, according to Radcliffe, consider the country as a relatively safe warehouse for stolen goods.

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