On Monday, Andreas Blühm, director of the Groninger Museum in the Netherlands, was eating Indonesian-style french fries inside a cafe in Amsterdam when he received the call he had been anxiously awaiting for the past three years: “We have recovered the painting,” the voice on the other end of the line said.
Blühm sprinted out of his seat. The french fries went half-eaten. This wasn’t just any painting — it was one of Vincent Van Gogh’s early works, “The Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in Spring,” which in 2020 had been stolen from a temporary exhibit at another museum in the Netherlands while it was on loan from the Groninger Museum. Though arrests had been made in the case, the painting remained stuck in the void of the criminal underworld, being passed around like a nuclear hot potato ever since.
But on Monday morning, the painting from 1884 was recovered in a scene worthy of a Hollywood flick: It arrived at the home of Dutch art detective Arthur Brand, dubbed the “Indiana Jones of the art world,” inside a bloody pillowcase that was stuffed into one of Ikea’s iconic blue tote bags. Brand immediately called Blühm.
“It was an incredibly emotional reunion and truly an amazing day,” Blühm told The Washington Post. “The painting is an integral part of our collection and of our local cultural heritage, and thinking we could have lost that forever was terrible.”
Unlike Van Gogh’s more colorful and well-known work of his French period, “The Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in Spring” has a muted palette of deep browns. At the time, Van Gogh “was trying to master classic landscape painting,” Blühm said, by re-creating scenes from his parents’ home in Nuenen, Netherlands. The painting, which portrays a mysterious woman walking in the garden, had remained in the city of Groningen for more than 120 years after a university professor bought it in the early 20th century. In 1962 it was gifted to the city, and then to the museum.
In January 2020, the painting traveled 105 miles south to the city of Laren, where it was displayed as part of an exhibit called “Mirror of the Soul” — a collection of some 70 paintings showcasing Dutch artists’ early shifts away from the impressionist style, said Evert van Os, the general manager of the Singer Laren museum. But in the early hours of March 30, 2020, a man shattered the museum’s glass door, snatched the painting off the wall and fled on a motorcycle — a crime that coincidentally fell on Van Gogh’s birthday.
“To be honest, from an artistic view and also in terms of value, there were better paintings in the exhibition,” van Os said. “But they were not Van Gogh, a name that is like magic for criminals since they all know him internationally.”
Authorities say Peter Roy K, who was in prison for a separate case involving the large-scale import and export of cocaine, commissioned the theft in a bid to negotiate a lower sentence. The heist was carried out by a man identified as Nils M, who was convicted in 2021 and sentenced to eight years in prison for the painting theft.
“This is more like artnapping,” said Blühm, from the Groninger Museum. “Certainly with works of art by famous artists, like Van Gogh, it’s not that they want to steal it to sell it, or to hang it in their basement, it’s more like they want to have something to negotiate with.”
But there’s a big problem with stolen art, according to Brand.
“No one wants to touch illegal art,” the detective said. “And everybody who touched this painting ended up in prison with high prison time, and they got fines of millions.”
The invaluable piece was suddenly rendered worthless, passed from group to group until someone decided it was time to break the cycle.
The first message to Brand came a couple of weeks ago, he said. Out of the blue, his cellphone lit up with a WhatsApp message asking whether he had a confidentiality obligation. “I said, ‘No, I’m not a priest. But if I give you my word, I give you my word,’” Brand said. After a few minutes his phone pinged again — the anonymous person said he could return “The Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in Spring” and sent Brand proof.
“I discussed it with the Dutch police, and it was obvious from the beginning that this person had nothing to do with the theft,” Brand said. “This was a guy who just wanted to hand it over, so we went along with it.”
On Saturday, Brand was at a party when he received another text: “Arthur, I see you standing outside. I’m here and I want to meet you under the tree.”
Brand walked away from the celebration and into an area shrouded in darkness. There, a man sitting on a bench promised he’d return the painting in two days — but only if he didn’t get into any trouble. Brand told Blühm right away, and the museum director arranged to travel to Amsterdam, where he’d be able to identify the painting once it was — hopefully — delivered.
Blühm had already been through one false alarm and was hesitant to get his hopes up once again. It was also a recovery mission he had to keep secret. And though he thought to himself, I will only believe it when I see it, Blühm called in sick from work on Monday and sat inside a cafe awaiting Brand’s call.
Some two blocks away, the exchange was already taking place. Brand heard a doorbell ring and opened the door to find a smiling man carrying a battered Ikea bag. He apologized for the bits of blood that splashed across the pillowcase after he cut his hand.
From inside the pillowcase, Brand carefully took out a painting that was about 11 inches tall and 22 inches long. It had a couple of scratches, but it was otherwise in good condition. Then, he called Blühm to verify it.
“It’s still difficult to call the police because stolen art isn’t something you find in the Salvation Army; you find it in the criminal world,” Brand said. “But sometimes, people in the criminal underworld, for whatever reason, want to do something good.”
Now, the painting is being safely kept by the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, where it’ll undergo restorations. Blühm said he hopes it will be displayed again at the Groninger Museum — where it will remain for at least a couple of years, because Blühm is “a little too traumatized” by the experience to loan it out again.
On Tuesday, when Blühm was finally able to announce the news, the museum’s staff celebrated with lukewarm champagne and cake. And though the recovery brought immense joy across the Netherlands, the museum director said there was also a bittersweet aspect to it.
“We are obviously overjoyed,” he said. “But the sad thing is that this incident makes this painting all of a sudden more interesting. And this is not fair, because the painting is already interesting as it is, and it doesn’t need that story.”