Art detectives go deep inside the criminal underworld on hunt for stolen Van Gogh

The damaged front door of the Singer Laren Museum, where Van Gogh’s “Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in Spring” was recently pilfered.
The damaged front door of the Singer Laren Museum, where Van Gogh’s “Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in Spring” was recently pilfered.
Image: AP Photo/Peter Dejong
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When a thief stole a multimillion-dollar painting by Vincent van Gogh from a small museum in the Netherlands last month, Octave Durham almost immediately found himself a person of interest.

“It’s not a coincidence, because most of the time I did it,” Durham, who spent 25 months in prison for his own Van Gogh heist, told Quartz. “But now I’m retired.”

The nighttime smash-and-grab robbery at the Singer Laren Museum, committed in late March while it was closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, bore many of the hallmarks of Durham’s infamous 2002 burglary at the nearby Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, during which he stole two priceless paintings by the renowned artist. This time, the bandit broke through a pane of glass with a sledgehammer and was in and out in minutes.

“They knew what they were doing, going straight for the famous master,” Jan Rudolph de Lorm, the Singer Laren’s director, told reporters.

The thief escaped the museum with Van Gogh’s Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in Spring, a painting valued at about $6 million. Dutch authorities this week released security video taken the night of the burglary, which shows the burglar arriving by motorbike.

Roughly $6 billion worth of art is stolen each year, according to an FBI estimate, making it the third-most lucrative criminal enterprise in the world after narcotics and the arms trade. Some 30 Van Gogh paintings alone have been stolen in the Netherlands since 1988. Police and insurance agents have recovered all but the most recent. Parsonage Garden, which was on loan from another Dutch museum about two hours away, was stolen on what would have been the painter’s 167th birthday.

“Octave was the first thing I checked,” Arthur Brand, a freelance art crime detective known as the “Indiana Jones of the art world,” told Quartz. He is now helping Dutch police with the investigation. Brand had tracked Durham for years and after Durham left prison in 2006, the two struck up an unlikely friendship. “I thought, ‘Oh my god, Octave—where the fuck are you?’ I gave him a call and couldn’t reach him and thought, ‘Oh fuck.’”

Durham swears he had nothing to do with it, and Brand says he has a strong alibi: Durham was in the hospital when the painting was taken. Durham says he’s been out of the game for about seven years. The risk-reward ratio for stolen art is just not worth it anymore, he explained, adding that he is presently pursuing movie deals and planning a speaking tour with Brand across Europe. There will be no US leg because Durham, 47, is barred from entering the country.

Octave Durham
Octave Durham
Image: Courtesy Octave Durham

In search of the Parsonage Garden, Dutch authorities are now combing the dark corners of a criminal underground where stolen art can be used to feed egos and leverage power. Where the thief went next, and the painting’s intended destination, remains unknown. But Durham, Brand, and others who are intimately familiar with the world of art theft have some ideas.

What they know

Dutch police are still on duty during the coronavirus lockdown, but museum staff are not and there were few potential witnesses on the streets. Even before the pandemic, security guards at the Singer Laren never worked overnight. A central alarm system instead flags a nearby police station, which gives a thief some time to get in, get out, and get away.

Robert Wittman, a retired FBI agent who started the bureau’s Art Crime Team in 2004, said criminals are always on the lookout for such weaknesses. In the early morning hours of March 30—about two weeks after museums in the Netherlands closed to slow the spread of coronavirus—circumstances were pretty much ideal for a burglary.

“It gives an opportunity for certain individuals…to go after certain high-value assets, and that Van Gogh is certainly a high-value asset,” Wittman told Quartz.

A picture of Van Gogh’s Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in Spring.
A picture of Van Gogh’s Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in Spring.
Image: REUTERS/Piroschka Van De Wouw

For law enforcement, the investigation always begins with the basics, Wittman said. Once any fingerprints are lifted, and security camera footage reviewed, museum staff and other insiders are brought in for interviews. About 90% of art thefts in the US are inside jobs, he noted.

“You’re [usually] going to find that somewhere along the line, somebody tipped somebody off or was involved in some way,” Wittman said.

Museums generally tend to “have terrible security” because it’s expensive and “people like to donate to sexy things like buying new paintings, not upgrading the security camera system,” Erin Thompson, a professor of art crime at New York City’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, told Quartz. Being located in historic buildings can make it difficult for many museums to meet modern security standards.

A Van Gogh watercolor stolen in 2003 from the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester, England—along with works by Picasso and Gauguin—turned up three days later with a note saying the heist was simply an attempt to expose the space’s “woeful security.”

“Turbo” Paul Hendry, a British stolen-art-handler-turned-consultant who today advises buyers, insurers, and investigators, told Quartz the thief “must have done their homework to know the Van Gogh was there,” as it was on loan and not a permanent fixture at the Singer Laren. “Loan paintings are protected, but not in a permanent manner, so gaps appear,” he said.

So far, Thompson said, there are few obvious clues as to why the thief targeted Parsonage Garden, a little-known work from Van Gogh’s early period. If you’re going to risk stealing something that will grab international headlines and be hard to sell, “at least do it for Starry Night and have a really great one instead of this murky, bottom-of-the-garden, depressing one,” she said.

“Turbo” Paul Hendry
“Turbo” Paul Hendry
Image: Courtesy "Turbo" Paul Hendry

Where to look

Stealing priceless art is the easy part, Durham says. In his words, it’s “like taking candy from a kid.” The hard part is selling the piece for even a tiny fraction of its value when the whole world knows it’s stolen, he said.

“The big problem in all these situations is not the stealing, it’s the selling,” Wittman agreed. “What do you do with it once you have it? […] What are you going to do with a Van Gogh that’s famous, that’s stolen from a museum in the Netherlands? Is that worth 10 kilos of heroin? You can sell [drugs] on the street and make some money. A Van Gogh? What good is that?”

For some, it’s not about money. It’s about leverage.

After the murder of his original buyer on the day of the planned sale, Durham managed to offload his pair of stolen Van Goghs to Neapolitan mobster Raffaele Imperiale, who paid less than $400,000 for the two paintings—a tiny fraction of their estimated market value.

People outside the closed Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam after Durham’s 2002 theft.
People outside the closed Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam after Durham’s 2002 theft.
Image: AP Photo/Peter Dejong

Imperiale, who claimed he bought them because he was fond of art, stashed them away in the country house where his mother lived. When Italian police finally caught up with him for drug trafficking, he offered the paintings’ location as a trade for a lighter punishment. Cops found the paintings wrapped in cloth, stuffed in a hidden wall space near the kitchen. Prosecutors agreed to a deal, reducing Imperiale’s sentence from 18 years to nine. He is reportedly now in Dubai fighting extradition. The Dutch drug lord Kees Houtman also tried in 2002 to trade three Van Goghs stolen a decade earlier for less time behind bars.

It’s not out of the realm of possibility, Brand said, that the latest Van Gogh theft was ordered by someone with a similar plan. Some criminals view paintings simply as “get-out-of-jail-free” cards, and so commission thieves to steal them. “If these guys who stole the Van Gogh have a buyer already, it’s most likely a drug lord or mobster—maybe someday he’ll need it to make a deal,” he said. “But it could also be they [did] it like Octave did: they just steal it and then they try to find someone willing to buy it.”

The two Van Gogh masterpieces stolen by Durham, after their return in 2017.
The two Van Gogh masterpieces stolen by Durham, after their return in 2017.
Image: AP Photo/Peter Dejong

Drug traffickers have also used stolen artwork as collateral. When ordering a shipment of cocaine from Colombia, the Dutch mafia might send their narco counterparts a masterpiece as a guarantee that they’re good for the money, Durham said. “They know you want that painting back because if you are in legal problems, this painting can help you. There is no money that can help you but this painting will, so just make sure you pay your bills and if you’ve paid them all, you get the painting back.”

This has actually spawned a new market for fakes, according to Brand, who says shady art handlers have begun offering counterfeits of stolen masterworks to underworld buyers looking to ease future legal troubles.

“It’s a crazy business,” Brand said.

A Rembrandt valued at $35 million that Wittman recovered, pictured with $250,000 used to lure the suspects.
A Rembrandt valued at $35 million that Wittman recovered, pictured with $250,000 used to lure the suspects.
Image: Courtesy Robert Wittman

Wittman scoffs at the idea that a super-criminal might be trying to get their hands on a stolen masterpiece to add to their own collection. He argues that the last thing rich gangsters want is something on their wall that can add years onto a criminal sentence if found in a police raid.

Some, however, disagree. For crime bosses, ego can overcome cold logic, according to Hendry. “I think you will find [the] human nature of wanting to own beautiful trophy things is universal,” Hendry said. “Authorities always like to play down art crime as a haphazard crime of opportunity, with no structure, when the opposite is true in many cases.”

French businessman Jean Michel Corvez is now doing time for his role in ordering a major 2010 Paris heist. And Durham says he knows of wealthy criminals who fill hidden rooms with pilfered treasures. “Now and then, they smoke a big cigar and [look at] all these paintings and stuff they have, and say, ‘You fuckers, you’ve been looking for this all over the world—I’ve got it,’” he said.

While the typical buyer “may not be a reclusive billionaire on an island like Dr. No,” Hendry said stolen art has turned up in the collections of apparently unwitting buyers like film director Steven Spielberg, singer Boy George, Swiss industrialist Baron Heini Thyssen, and late designer Gianni Versace. Earlier this year, authorities fined Spanish billionaire Jaime Botín, the largest shareholder in Santander bank, $58 million for trying to smuggle an “unexportable” Picasso out of the country.

The Singer Laren Museum, where the latest Van Gogh heist took place.
The Singer Laren Museum, where the latest Van Gogh heist took place.
Image: REUTERS/Piroschka Van De Wouw

A stolen artwork usually passes through many hands, Hendry said. It can be smuggled in various ways, whether hidden inside a shipping container, sent through the mail, or helped by corrupt customs officials. Wittman once worked a case involving a stolen Renoir—called “Young Parisienne”—that had been sewn into a coat and smuggled into the US through Los Angeles International Airport.

Stolen art is typically “laid down” for a couple of weeks, then taken across the nearest border, Hendry said. But he believes the Van Gogh stolen from the Singer Laren is still in the area due to the coronavirus lockdown. With checkpoints in place and regional security tightened, Hendry thinks moving it now would be “foolhardy, to say the least.”

But the Singer Laren theft was unusual, Thompson said—thieves rarely target museum galleries. Normally, stolen art is lifted less dramatically from the homes of private collectors or museum storage, which may not be inventoried for years.

“It’s tricky because people have to know that something is missing,” Thompson said. “So if you’re a museum and you haven’t gotten into that storeroom for a couple of decades, you might not have any idea—which happens more often than you might think.”

View of the Sea at Scheveningen, one of the two Van Goghs that Octave Durham stole in 2002.
View of the Sea at Scheveningen, one of the two Van Goghs that Octave Durham stole in 2002.
Image: AP Photo/Peter Dejong

Recovering art stolen in this way is often more difficult. A private owner might not keep strong documentation, or even a photograph of the work to publicize in a recovery attempt. “You have to be really careful in recovering art to make sure you’re not getting sold a forgery,” Thompson said. “And that’s why it’s important for museums to always have photographs of the backs of paintings.”

If the painting was taken on a whim, and not by a sophisticated criminal, there’s a chance it will meet a more tragic end. “[You] get the sort of clueless thief who knows that art is valuable and takes it and then panics,” Thompson said. “Sadly, sometimes they destroy the paintings to get rid of the evidence.”

In 2006, Mireille Breitwieser took extreme measures in an apparent attempt to protect her son, prolific French art thief Stephane Breitwieser, whose personal stash was valued at $1.4 billion. She was sentenced to 18 months in prison in 2006 for throwing dozens of old masters, including works by Brueghel, Cranach, Watteau, and Boucher, into the Rhine-Rhone canal.

The insurance angle

In his 2011 memoir, Wittman described posing as a corrupt art broker to make deals with international drug kingpins on mega-yachts in Miami and well-connected Corsican mobsters in Geneva. A likelier outcome for the Singer Laren’s Van Gogh, Thompson argued, is that it will be recovered in a more prosaic fashion—by its insurer.

“It’s always the least exciting thing to say that the art world is about taxes or insurance, but it’s true in this case,” she said.

Many European museums have insurance policies offering about 15% of the value of a stolen painting to anyone who returns it, with no questions asked, she said. “You steal a Van Gogh. You know that if you ever need to recover 10% or 15% of its value, you can give it to your girlfriend or your mom or something, and they can be like, ‘I found this on the street,’ to the insurance company,” Thompson said. “And then you get that money.”

American museums tend to eschew the policy because they think it encourages theft—and it’s not always a sure thing in Europe since museums don’t tend to advertise having this insurance clause. “You must be taking a risk. Either that or you have cultivated some sort of insider information on who has what policy,” Thompson said.

The insurance companies themselves tend to pay out fairly fast once they’ve confirmed the policy was properly followed and there was no “hanky panky,” said William Fleischer, principal of Art Insurance Now, a New York-based broker. “There’s a small amount of insurers that do art, so if you do something in a negative way, people will find about that and say, ‘We don’t want that carrier.’” Fleischer estimated the annual insurance premium for the recently stolen Van Gogh would have been somewhere between $6,000 and $8,000.

Insurance firms usually keep paintings that are recovered. “There are a lot of companies that have amazing collections,” Fleischer told Quartz.

In some cases, the original owner can do some arbitrage once their painting is found. A Picasso that Brand recovered last year in the Netherlands was insured at the time of its theft in 1999 for $4.5 million, the purchase price paid 20 years prior by Sheikh Abdul Mohsen Abdulmalik Al-Sheikh of Saudi Arabia. After it turned up again, Hendry said Al-Sheikh used a clause written into his insurance policy to buy the Picasso back from his insurer for the original $4.5 million, plus expenses. In the two decades that passed, the Picasso had increased in value dramatically. “The sheik now has a $70 million Picasso, a real happy ending for him,” Hendry said.

What comes next

Wittman is certain Parsonage Garden will eventually resurface, most likely when someone tries to bring it to market. Whether that will be during an undercover police operation, with a cop posing as a buyer, or a sharp-eyed gallery owner who calls authorities after being approached for a sale, no one knows.

Durham believes the police already have a solid lead, declining to provide further details for fear of interfering with the investigation. “These guys made a big mistake,” he said. “When I heard it, I was laughing.”

For Brand, the Van Gogh theft at the Singer Laren is almost something of a “personal attack,” since it was swiped virtually in his own backyard.

“Sooner or later—it can take one year or it can take 10 years—somebody’s going to talk,” Brand said. “I have people in the criminal underworld all over the world from mobsters in Italy to drug lords and other people and sooner or later I might get a call.”