Thanks to a world-renowned art detective, an early Vincent van Gogh painting is back at home three and a half years after it was stolen from a Dutch museum.
Arthur Brand announced the recovery of The Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in Spring, an 1884 canvas estimated to be worth between $3.2 and $6.4 million, on September 12. The day before, an anonymous tipster delivered the bubble-wrapped painting to Brand’s Amsterdam apartment in an Ikea bag.
The individual who returned the painting is not believed to be involved in the theft, which took place before dawn on March 30, 2020—van Gogh’s birthday—at the Singer Laren museum in the Netherlands. At the time, the Singer Laren was closed due to Covid-19 restrictions. The artwork was on loan from the Groninger Museum, also in the Netherlands.
Authorities arrested the culprit behind the heist in April 2021, using DNA evidence left on a broken picture frame to link a man identified only as Nils M. to the thefts of both the van Gogh and a Frans Hal painting stolen in August 2020. A Dutch court sentenced Nils to eight years in prison and ordered him to pay nearly $9 million in compensation to the owner of the Hals.
Prosecutors believe Nils stole the van Gogh on the orders of Peter Roy K., a Dutch shipping mogul involved in drug smuggling, who hoped to use the artwork as leverage for negotiating a reduced prison sentence, reported Marco Willemse for Dutch newspaper AD in 2021.
“The perpetrator is in custody and the painting is back,” Richard Bronswijk, a member of the Dutch Police’s Art Crime Unit, tells ABC News’ Emma Ogao. “We are very happy with that result.”
After Nils’ arrest, the painting circulated in the criminal underworld, where it was used a down payment. But nobody was willing to buy it, as “the thieves had been convicted, and anybody possessing it would risk a hefty fine,” writes Claire Moses for the New York Times.
“We knew that the painting would go from one hand to another hand in the criminal world, but that nobody really wanted to touch it,” Brand tells the Guardian’s Senay Boztas. “You could only get in trouble. So it was a little bit cursed.”
Brand is most famous for recovering two horse statues created by Adolf Hitler’s favorite sculptor, Josef Thorak. The bronze horses once stood outside of the New Reich Chancellery in Berlin, but they went missing after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Brand helped authorities track the sculptures through the underbelly of the art world, ensuring their return in 2015.
Since then, the so-called “Indiana Jones of the art world” has helped authorities recover stolen paintings by Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dalí, in addition to a 15th-century manuscript of Persian poetry, a gold ring gifted to a friend by Oscar Wilde and more than 200 other artworks.
Brand tells the Guardian that the tipster who returned the painting contacted him, saying, “Mr. Brand, I could turn in the van Gogh, but I don’t want to get in trouble.” The art detective “had to gain his confidence” before the man agreed to drop off the canvas in a meeting sanctioned by authorities.
In a statement, the Groninger Museum says the oil on paper on panel painting “has suffered” due to poor storage conditions over the past few years but “is—at first glance—still in good condition.” A formal examination and restoration work must be completed before the painting goes back on view, which could take “weeks, if not months,” according to the museum.