Missing Van Gogh painting worth millions returned to museum in Ikea bag

Dutch police this week retrieved a Van Gogh painting stolen over three years ago, thanks to a tip from an “art detective” who returned the painting in an Ikea bag. 

“The Groninger Museum is extremely happy and relieved that the work is back,” its director, Andreas Blühm, said in a statement after police reclaimed the painting Tuesday. “We are very grateful to everyone who contributed to this good outcome.”

Vincent van Gogh’s “Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in Spring” went missing in March 2020 during a nighttime smash-and-grab at the Singer Laren museum in Amsterdam, where the painting hung while on loan from the Groninger Museum. 

Arthur Brand, a Dutch art professor-turned-“art detective” who has successfully recovered a number of stolen works, played a “key role” in recovering the work, which Brand noted had been stolen on Van Gogh’s birthday.

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Video from Brand’s social media showed him bringing the painting back to his apartment in an Ikea bag, with the work itself wrapped many times in bubble wrap and cushioned packaging. The 10-by-22-inch oil on paper painting shows a person standing in a garden surrounded by trees with a church tower in the background.

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The painting “Lentetuin, de pastorietuin te Nuenen in het voorjaar,” 1884, known in English as ‘Spring Garden, The Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in Spring’ by painter Vincent Van Gogh, is seen in this undated handout image obtained by Reuters on September 12, 2023.  (Marten de Leeuw/Courtesy of Gronginger Museum/Handout via Reuters)

Security footage from the museum showed a man in a thick coat and a ski mask making his way through the backrooms of the museum carrying the painting and another work rolled up. Brand then received pictures of the painting just months later as evidence of “proof of life” that the work remained unharmed. 

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Brand said the pictures had circulated in Mafia circles. The photos featured the painting alongside a book about a thief who stole two Van Gogh paintings from an Amsterdam museum and a May 2020 copy of the New York Times discussing the thief’s own heist that year. 

Dutch art heist

The Singer Laren Museum, where the work of art “Spring Garden” by Vincent Van Gogh was stolen, is seen closed to the public because of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Laren, Netherlands, March 30, 2020.  (Reuters/Piroschka Van De Wouw/File Photo)

Dutch police in 2021 then arrested a 58-year-old, later identified only as Nils M, on suspicion of stealing paintings, including the Van Gogh work, that totaled around $22.4 million, ABC News reported. Police called the arrest an “important step” in the investigation, as they did not recover the paintings Nils had stolen. 

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In a statement, the police noted that artworks can serve as collateral for organized crime and had intercepted messages that gave “good insight” into the criminal trade “in these types of valuable objects.” 

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Employees in the retail sector in Lower Saxony stand in front of the Ikea store Expo-Park during a warning strike. (Julian Stratenschulte/picture alliance via Getty Images)

The Groninger Museum declined to provide details as to how it ultimately recovered the painting but promised that the work would hang in its galleries soon, although that may not happen for a few months, as the painting has “suffered” even as the museum assured that the work is “still in good condition.” 

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The return of the painting also raises a quirk in the ownership, since an insurance company had already paid out for the loss and now owns the work. The Groninger Museum insisted that it would have the right of first purchase for the work. 

A person found guilty of art theft in the Netherlands can serve up to eight years in prison. 

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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