Arthur Brand: Dutch art detective recovers stolen Van Gogh worth millions

Informant returns the artwork in an Ikea bag three years after it was stolen in a heist

Dutch art detective Arthur Brand poses for a photograph during an interview with AFP in north London on January 20, 2019
Arthur Brand has been dubbed the 'Indiana Jones of the art world'
(Image credit: Getty Images)

The Dutch art detective Arthur Brand has recovered a stolen Vincent Van Gogh painting worth up to £5.2 million, more than three years after it was stolen in a "daring midnight heist".

Brand, who has been "dubbed the 'Indiana Jones of the art world'", acquired the 1884 painting "Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in Spring" after he "tracked down" the criminal who had it in their possession, said Mail Online. He earned his nickname after tracing "a series of high-profile lost artworks" worth up to £340 million in total. 

The painting "was being passed around the criminal world like a hot potato", said The Guardian, after being stolen in a "brazen smash-and-grab" raid in March 2020. 

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But on 11 September, an "unusual visitor" arrived at Brand's Amsterdam apartment "holding a battered, blue Ikea bag". Brand "carefuly unwrapped" the painting in front of a colleague filming the moment, and compared the back "with an image he had been sent as 'proof of life'" that the Van Gogh painting still existed. "It's him," Brand said. "Vincent van Gogh is back. What a day."

Who stole the painting?

The painting was stolen while it was on temporary loan at the Singer Laren Museum, 20 miles southeast of Amsterdam, from the Groninger Museum in the northern Dutch city of Groningen.

Although the exhibition opened in January 2020, it was forced to close two months later as Dutch museums "shuttered in response to the pandemic", said The New York Times. Security camera footage taken on 30 March 2020 showed "a masked man… using a sledgehammer to smash through two glass doors and then leaving with the painting under his arm".

Brand knew the painting "would go from one hand to another hand in the criminal world", he told The Guardian, adding that nobody "wanted to touch it because it wasn't worth anything". Because you could only "get in trouble", the painting was "a little bit cursed".

The person who returned the artwork couldn't have been the person who stole it, according to Brand, because the thief, known as Nils M, and the person who ordered the heist, known as Peter Roy K, had already been arrested and convicted. 

Nils M, who was sentenced to eight years in prison in 2021, was "also convicted for stealing another masterpiece by Frans Hals… in a separate heist", said The Telegraph. Peter Roy K, meanwhile, was already imprisoned for a separate case involving "large-scale import and export of cocaine", and he wanted to "use the painting as collateral to negotiate a reduction in his sentence".

Police caught them "after intercepting their encrypted communications", according to The New York Times, but the Van Gogh painting was still missing.

How did Brand recover the painting? 

Brand has "gained acclaim for his work as an art detective" over the last two decades, wrote The Guardian's community affairs correspondent, Aamna Mohdin. He has recovered a stolen Picasso painting, Nazi-era bronze horses as well as works by Salvador Dalí and Tamara de Lempicka. 

He has also "written books, hosted a television show about finding stolen art and frequently urges people to come forward", added The New York Times. Over the last few years, he has received tips relating to the painting, "including photographs of the artwork".

The painting's whereabouts had "remained a mystery" until a few weeks ago, when "a mysterious man" contacted Brand saying he wanted to return it, added Mail Online. Following "some negotiation", Brand persuaded the man – who had "nothing to do with the theft" – to hand back the artwork. It had “caused a massive headache" because it "could not be used as a bargaining chip", the news site added.

Brand had been working "in close coordination" with the Dutch police. Months after the theft, Brand "heard from a source in the criminal world" that the person who had bought the painting from Nils M was Peter Roy K. But the whereabouts of the painting remained a mystery "until two weeks ago when Brand was contacted".

Brand met the informant at his house, The New York Times continued, with video footage showing him "unwrapping the package and sighing with relief" when he saw the painting. It is not clear how the painting reached the informant, and Brand "wouldn't go into details of the relationship".

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Keumars Afifi-Sabet is a freelance writer at The Week Digital, and is the features editor on ITPro, another Future Publishing brand. As features editor, he commissions and publishes in-depth articles around a variety of areas including AI, cloud computing and cybersecurity. As a writer, he specialises in technology and current affairs. In addition to The Week Digital, he contributes to Computeractive and TechRadar, among other publications.