Around 3:30 a.m. Wednesday, thieves forced their way through the back door of the Museum Hofje van Mevrouw van Aerden in Leerdam, a city about 35 miles south of Amsterdam.
Wednesday’s heist wasn’t the painting’s first brush with thieves—nor, in fact, its second. As local police note in a statement, this incident is actually the third time thieves have run away with Two Laughing Boys in tow.
Burglars first stole the canvas—in addition to Jacob van Ruisdael’s Forest View With Flowering Elderberry—in 1988. Authorities recovered the pair of paintings three years later. Per Jennifer Rankin of the Guardian, the same two artworks were stolen again in 2011 and only recovered after six months. Though the museum increased its security after the second break-in, these measures failed to stop the latest thieves.
“It’s very difficult to secure small museums as it costs too much money,” Arthur Brand, an art detective who is now investigating the theft, tells BBC News. “If they want to have your stuff, they’ll get in.”
Brand—whose successful recovery of a stolen Picasso painting, a 15th-century collection of Persian poetry, Oscar Wilde’s lost friendship ring and other high-profile artifacts has earned him the nickname “Indiana Jones of the art world”—suspects that that the painting was stolen “to order” at the bequest of a master criminal.
Speaking with Lisanne van Sadelhoff of Dutch broadcast station RTL Nieuws, Brand explains that criminals sometimes offer to return stolen art in exchange for a lighter sentence. In the early 1990s, Dutch drug dealer Kees Houtman attempted this strategy with several Vincent van Gogh paintings, according to BBC News; more recently, in 2017, a mafia boss in Naples, Italy, returned two stolen van Goghs that had spent years hidden away in a safe.
Though the painting is worth an estimated $17.8 million, according to the Guardian, Brand suspects that the thieves were unaware of its exact value. Knowing that the Old Master painting had been stolen twice before, “they probably concluded it’s worth a lot of money, and it’s relatively easy to steal,” he tells RTL Niews.
Some scholars consider Two Laughing Boys part of a series in which Hals explored the five senses, reports artnet News. The 1626 work, which depicts a central figure gazing into his mug while a second boy glances over his shoulder, may represent sight.
In 2011, Frans Hals specialist Anna Tummers described the painting as a “wonderful example of his loose painting style. ... It was very playful, daring and loose,” per BBC News. A master of lively portraits, Hals is best known for the Laughing Cavalier (1624), which shows its mustachioed subject smiling confidently at the viewer.
The police have asked witnesses with any information related to Wednesday’s theft to come forward. As Reuters notes, the painting was last recovered when thieves attempted to sell it.
The heist marks the second high-profile art theft in the Netherlands during the novel coronavirus pandemic. In March, a burglar (or burglars) stole a Vincent van Gogh masterpiece, The Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in Spring 1884, from the Singer Laren museum, reported Katherine J. Wu for Smithsonian magazine at the time. Both the Singer Laren museum and the Museum Hofje van Mevrouw van Aerden were temporarily closed due to Covid-19 when the artworks were taken.
“We have no idea where the painting is at this moment,” Hanneke Sanders, a spokesperson for the central Netherlands police department, tells the New York Times’ Claire Moses and Nina Siegal.
She adds, “We are at a very early stage in the investigation. We are asking people if they have any video or have seen anything; all help is welcome to get it solved.”