First high-profile art heist recorded during the COVID-19 pandemic

Opportunistic criminals have stolen Vincent Van Gogh’s painting ‘The Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in Spring’ (1884) from the Singer Laren Museum in east Amsterdam.

They smashed through the Museum’s large glass front door around 3:15am on Monday 30 March, which also happened to be Van Gogh’s birthday (he was born on 30 March 1853). The break-in triggered the Museum’s alarm but the thieves had vanished by the time police arrived. The swiftness of the perpetrators suggests they were skilled thieves but precise details of how they carried out the heist are yet to be revealed by police who are undertaking a criminal investigation.

Like most Dutch museums, the Singer Laren had been closed to visitors since 12 March in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. It is scheduled to remain closed until 1 June. Singer Laren Director, Jan Rudolph de Lorm, said he was “extremely pissed off that this happened… this is a huge blow. This is extremely difficult, especially in these times”. artnet News says “it was only a matter of time” before thieves took advantage of the art world lockdown in response to the coronavirus pandemic and made off with priceless treasures.

Valued around €1.5 million (£1.3 million), the oil on paper was painted by Van Gogh while living in Nuenen between 1883 and 1885 when his father was a pastor there. It depicts the view of the back garden of his father’s parsonage with the tower of the old village church in the distance. A woman dressed in black walks away down the garden path, turning to look back towards Van Gogh’s father’s house.

The painting was on loan to the Singer Laren from the Groninger Museum in Groningen, the Netherlands, and was the only Van Gogh in its collection. It was donated to the municipality of Groningen in 1962 by Jan Willem Moll. The loan formed part of a Singer Laren exhibition of art from around 1900 created in response to the rapid industrialisation of the Netherlands called ‘Mirror of the Soul: Toorop to Mondriaan’. In a statement, the Groninger Museum said it “is shocked by the news” of the painting’s theft.

artnet News says the heist should serve as a stark reminder to arts institutions that they need to ramp up efforts to stave off potential security breaches, both physical and digital, during the lockdown. With only handfuls of staff remaining on-site at museums and emergency services overwhelmed, museums are targets. As one Interpol spokesperson remarked “criminals don’t take breaks and will use any situation to their advantage

Whether smaller institutions and private home collections or sophisticated national museums, artnet News warns that everyone should review their security measures and offers the following tips from security experts:

  • Insurance: Chief executive of Art Recovery International LLC, Christopher Marinello, recommends that institutions and private collectors review and update their insurance policies. He urged them to take this time to update their files with provenance information, receipts and images. “Institutions and collectors always claim that there is never enough time for these critical exercises. Now, there is plenty of time.” Marinello also advised museums to check their security systems are functioning properly and even consider moving their vulnerable collections to specialist fine art storage facilities;
  • Cyber security: The theft of the Van Gogh painting brought home the very real physical threat posed by the lockdown but head of private client services and strategic risk and security at K2 Intelligence FIN, Jordan Arnold, reminded museums not to neglect their cyber defences. He said museums should be wary of emails with links or attachments purporting to offer safety guidelines or government bailout programs, which may actually be ransomware. Arnold even predicts cyber criminals might set up hoax donation pages pretending to be in support of museums, galleries and artists.
  • Physical security: Arnold recommends institutions should consider installing temporary barriers museum entrances to block entry and exit to institutions, which could slow down a theft and allow emergency services more time to respond to a break-in. He also suggests deploying glass security film which makes it more difficult to break into glass display cases and using deterrents like visible security cameras bright lighting.

On a more positive note, as The Art Newspaper has pointed out, most major works of art which have been stolen do eventually resurface. In the past, Netherlands has endured the theft of 28 paintings by Van Gogh all of which were eventually recovered.

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