Of stolen art and the art of tracing them

Of stolen art and the art of tracing them
The best bit of art news this week is the recovery of two Van Gogh paintings that were stolen from a museum in Amsterdam 14 years ago. Italian police have confirmed that the paintings, Seascape at Scheveningen and Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen stolen in 2002, have been recovered from a Naples mafia group, by the Italian crime officials. The paintings were discovered wrapped in cloth in a safe house, in the seaside town Castellammare di Stabia near Pompeii and are in fairly good condition.

During the night of December 6-7, 2002, the thieves used a sledgehammer to break a window on the first floor of the Van Gogh Museum and then used a ladder, to enter the museum through the roof. They managed to remove the two paintings from the walls of the main exhibition hall, despite the infra-red security system and the presence of guards on patrol. Dutch citizens, art thief Octave Durham and accomplice Henk Sieslign were jailed in 2004, but maintained their innocence denying any participation in this theft. The police were unable to find any link to these stolen works till they arrested members of an organised Camorra group of drug traffickers a few months ago. It is from them that they learnt about the two Van Gogh paintings.

The paintings are considered an important link in Van Gogh’s rather short life in art. He was widely considered the greatest Dutch artist after Rembrandt. While Seascape is one of two seascapes created by the artist while he lived in the Netherlands — it depicts a stormy sea and thunder clouds — the other was painted for his mother. This was the church where Van Gogh’s father became a pastor in 1882.

The two recovered paintings were on loan at the time to the Van Gogh Museum by the Dutch government and, unfortunately, none of them were insured. Needless to say, there was considerable public criticism after the theft of the security at museums across the globe. As a result, museums began to spend huge sums of money on the latest security devices and continue to update them constantly, to prevent thefts.

Among the other major art works that were stolen and have since been recovered are Salvador Dali’s Adolescence and Tamara de Lempicka’s La Musicienne. They were stolen from a private museum in 2009, also in the Netherlands and recovered in July 2016. Expressionist painter Edvard Munch’s The Scream, was stolen from the Norwegian National Art Museum in Oslo in February 1994 by thieves who took just 50 seconds to climb a ladder, smash a window and remove the painting from the wall. Now restored and conserved the painting is displayed since May 2008 at the Munch Museum in Oslo.

The Caracas Museum of Contemporary Art discovered in 2002 that one of their most important paintings Henri Matisse’s Odalisque in Red Trousers (1925), was stolen and replaced by a copy. Valued at $3 million, it was recovered by undercover FBI agents at a Miami Beach Hotel in 2012, when a couple tried to sell it to them for $740,000. The paintings by French impressionists — Paul Gaugin’s La Femme aux Morte au petit Chien and Pierre Bonnard’s La Femme aux deux Fauteuils — were recovered on April 2, 2014. They were found hanging on the walls of an unsuspecting Italian factory worker, who bought them for $40 at a lost-property auction. His son noticed Gaugin’s style of painting from an art book and it was then that he and his father decided to consult an art expert and later the police.

(The writer is an author and a former art gallery owner)

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