Where the Van Goghs Went

/ by Lynda Albertson

Courtesy of D. Drent
The FBI's "Top Ten" unsolved art crimes was reduced to nine in September thanks to the dedication and hard work of a division of Italy's Corpo della Guardia di Finanza, which probes racketeering cases involving organised crime. Together with the Italian Public Prosecutions office, the Naples Direzione Distrettuale Antimafia and dedicated Dutch investigators, two of Vincent Van Gogh's historic paintings were recovered in Italy, 14 years after they were stolen in the Netherlands.


Courtesy of D. Drent
The artworks were located during the execution of a search and seizure warrant issued by the Italian authorities, part of a four-year criminal investigation into a Neapolitan underworld gang known to be moving thousands of pounds of illegal drugs through Europe and South America annually. While the aim of the probe was to dismantle a ring of cocaine brokers who supply drugs to the Camorra, finding Van Gogh’s lost masterpieces, at a residence in Castellammare di Stabia tied to the parents of a member of a drug clan, proved to be icing on the cake.


The paintings recovered were View of the Sea at Scheveningen and Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen. Both had been stolen from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, which houses the largest collection of the Post Impressionist Dutch master’s artworks in the world. Vincent Van Gogh died on July 29, 1890 and his brother Theo a short six months later. Theo’s wife, Johanna Van Gogh-Bonger, inherited Theo’s collection, which in turn formed the basis for the museum’s impressive collection. In total the Van Gogh Museum houses more than 200 of Vincent’s paintings, 400 of his drawings, and close to 700 of his letters, the bulk of which are correspondence between the two brothers.


Courtesy of D. Drent
The two Van Gogh paintings were stolen shortly before 8:00 am on Saturday, December 7, 2002. In a brazen crime that took less that eight minutes, two accomplices climbed to a first floor section of the museum using a ladder placed against the back side of the Rietveld Building facing Amsterdam’s Museum Square. This triggered the first in a series of alarms.


The thieves then walked from the back of the Van Gogh Museum edging towards the front entrance of the building which in 2002 looked out over Paulus Potterstraat. They then smashed one of the museum’s reinforced glass windows and quickly gained access to the museum’s interior. Despite triggering a second and following alarms, the pair still had three and a half minutes to themselves in a gallery before police would arrive, leaving then alone in a gallery devoted to Van Gogh's early portraits and landscapes.


Walking past several of Van Gogh’s smaller self-portraits, the thieves selected two small paintings and deftly removed them from the wall where they were hanging. Making their escape back out the broken same window, the pair descended from the roof using a rope strung to a flagpole at the front of the museum, swinging back down to the street with the paintings tucked under their arms. The burglars were inside the museum for only three and a half minutes; less time than it took for the police to arrive in response to the museum’s call informing authorities that a burglary was in progress.


But art thieves are seldom picture-perfect Hollywood cat burglars. In their rush for a quick getaway, the culprits committed two fatal errors. They dropped headgear used to obscure their identities, one near the broken window on the museum roof and the other on the street under the end of the rope on the street where they split up.


With critical evidence in hand, and following up on multiple leads, Dutch authorities honed in on two suspects: Octave Durham and Henk Bieslijn. They tracked the pair across the Netherlands and Spain for more than a year. As they observed their movements, investigators noted that the men, both of whom were receiving benefits from the Dutch welfare system designed to support people on low income, had suddenly developed a penchant for the good life.


Courtesy of D. Drent
Authorities recorded Durham and Bieslijn’s new lavish spending habits which included the purchase of expensive watches, furniture, renovated property and extravagant trips to Thailand, Euro Disney, Ibiza, and the Dominican Republic. Following up on leads, and suspicious of the duo’s newfound wealth, law enforcement authorities requested permission to wiretap the suspects’ phones and between February 17, 2003 and May 7, 2004 documented eleven incriminating phone conversations.


But among the evidence prosecutors would later present in court, the DNA samples retrieved from the abandoned disguise proved the most damning. DNA of both suspects was found on both pieces of headgear. It definitively placed both criminals not just at the scene of the crime, but inside the museum. Octave Durham was convicted and sentenced 4.5 years in prison. Henk Bieslijn was also convicted and given 4 years’ jail time. Each of the thieves were ordered to pay the Van Gogh Museum €350,000 in damages.


Despite their convictions, neither thief admitted to having participated in the crime, even after they had completed their sentences. Dutch authorities may have found and prosecuted their criminals, but the trail leading to where the missing Van Gogh’s had gone, seemed to be growing cold, at least in the eyes of the public.


But investigators had not given up. In the Netherlands and elsewhere, detectives continued to follow up on leads. In March 2010 Giovanni Nistri, of the Comando Carabinieri Tutela Patrimonio Culturale in Italy stated that he believed that Durham and Bieslijn stole the paintings on behalf of the Neapolitan Camorra. According to him at the time, there were “important clues to allow the presumption that members of the Neapolitan Camorra were somehow involved in the theft and consequent possession of the two paintings.”


Courtesy of D. Drent
In the lead up to the September 2016 recovery, both Dutch and Italian investigators were working leads that involved individuals connected to the Amato-Pagano crime syndicate, an underworld group once affiliated with the Secondigliano-based Di Lauro clan, the group which actively supplied Camorra dealers with a lucrative and steady stream of cocaine. In January 2016 Italian authorities formally filed charges and executed arrest warrants on eleven Amato-Pagano clan associates. While following up on the Neapolitan clan’s alliances it was discovered that one of the clan’s key leaders, Raffaele Imperiale, had ties to the city of Amsterdam, where he operated a “coffee shop” as far back as 2000, two year’s prior to the time the paintings were stolen.


Back in the Netherlands, Octave Durham, who had previously maintained his innocence while serving time for the crime, was having a change of heart. Having served his prison sentence, he was looking for a way to reduce the fine he owed the Dutch museum, perhaps believing that if the paintings could be recovered his fine for damages to the museum for their losses might be reduced.


Over the summer of 2016, Durham began talks with Dutch investigators and to investigative journalist Vincent Verweij, who writes for the Dutch crime website Vlinderscrime. In interviews done in the presence of his attorney, Durham ultimately admitted his roll as one of the thieves who removed the paintings from the walls of the Van Gogh Museum. He also implicated an underworld connection, Raffaele Imperiale.


As the journalist Verweij and ex con set about developing a book and a confessional documentary, Durham spoke of how the thieves had cased the museum prior to the theft. He was also filmed explaining how he broke into the gallery and removed the paintings from their wall fasteners.


As their story-telling enterprise developed, Verweij and Durham also communicated briefly with Raffaele Imperiale in the United Arab Emirates, through an intermediary using an encrypted communication line. But the clan boss, already on the lam avoiding an Italian extradition warrant, said that a meeting was not possible and shortly thereafter ceased all subsequent communication. But another clan associate proved less reticent than his Dubai-based colleague.


In Italian mafia parlance, there are two types of informants, the penitente and the pentito – the former begs forgiveness, the latter rats out former comrades, revealing evidence in shady dealings, in exchange for leniency in sentencing. One of the eleven clansmen arrested by the Italians in January was Mario Cerrone, a high level associate to Raffaele Imperiale, who tipped the investigators off to the paintings whereabouts 20 km south of Naples.


Cerrone confessed to authorities that the paintings were purchased with illicit proceeds from the Amato-Pagano clan's coffers shortly after their theft from the Van Gogh Museum, sometime between December 2002 and the first months of 2003. In his statements he estimated that the Amato-Pagano crime syndicate accumulated USD $15 million annually in illicit proceeds, meaning that the paintings were a significant purchase for the traffickers.


Ironically, one month after the paintings were recovered, Raffaele Imperiale himself publically began adding his own pieces to the Van Gogh theft puzzle. In a six-page written statement/confession/memoir sent from Dubai to the Naples prosecutors, Vincenza Marra, Stefania Castaldi and Maurizio De Marco, the mob capo informed prosecutors that he had selected Maurizio Frizzi and Giovanni Ricco, two Genovese attorneys with relationships to the Amato-Pagano clan, to represent him in the Italian criminal proceedings against him.


Imperiale also spoke in detail about his organized crime relationships in the Bay of Naples and the Netherlands and grandiosely offered all his seized property to Italian authorities in support of their fight against organized crime. When speaking in relation to the stolen Van Gogh paintings, his letter vaguely admitted to having purchased "some goods" which included the two Van Gogh paintings. The price tag for the clan’s artistic shopping trip? €10 million, paid in five separate installments. Interestingly, Imperiale chose not identify whom he had purchased the paintings from or how the stolen paintings furthered his illicit organization.




Why steal Van Gogh?


Van Gogh, who in his lifetime sold only one painting, The Red Vineyards near Arles, commands big figures in the contemporary art world. Eight masterpieces by the artist are ranked among the world's 50 most expensive artworks ever sold. Echoing that, the wave pattern of art theft often mirrors the whimsy of the lucrative art market. When possible thieves follow the path of least protection or resistance and often strike at objects known to be of value in places that allow for the opportunity.


When opportunity has knocked, art thieves have often had a preference for works of art attributed to Vincent Van Gogh. But just how many artworks by Vincent van Gogh have been stolen?


The Association for Research into Crimes against Art (ARCA) has catalogued 14 separate art thefts involving 36 separate artworks by Vincent Van Gogh. As if to prove their popularity, three Van Gogh paintings have been stolen two times each.


But the two works stolen in 2002 are finally back home.


View of the Sea at Scheveningen

By: Vincent van Gogh

Oil on canvas, 13 inches x 20 inches

Completed in Scheveningen in 1882


This small canvas is considered to be one of Van Gogh's finest masterworks. Painted directly on the beach in Scheveningen where the Post-Impressionist artist set up his easel and painted “plein-air” (in the open air), in his signature style using the impasto technique of applying paint as thickly as paste. The artwork still contains grains of sand, which had blown onto Van Gogh’s canvas and stuck to painting’s textured surface as he worked.


When ARCA asked investigators, who had facilitated the identifications after the recovery of the painting, if they had physical access to the artwork and if they could see these fine grains of sand, the investigator responded cheerfully “I have seen them today. And I have smelt the sea.”


In terms of the artworks condition upon recovery, Managing Director Adriaan Doenszelmann of the Van Gogh Museum confirmed that the painting sustained damage to its lower left corner. This has caused the thickly applied paint to break away in a 5 x 2 cm. area. Van Gogh Museum conservators have said that the artwork will undergo a full examination and conservation treatment once the Italian authorities have released the painting to the Dutch museum at the conclusion of their criminal proceedings.



Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen

By: Vincent Van Gogh

Oil on canvas 41.3 x 32.1 cm

Completed in Nuenen 1884/85


This painting has been stolen from the Vincent Van Gogh Museum in the Netherlands on two occasions, once in 2002 and earlier on April 14, 1991. During the earlier theft, a total of twenty Van Gogh artworks were taken. All twenty artworks were recovered in Amsterdam within 24 hours of the theft and four perpetrators, including one museum guard and a former employee of the museum's security firm, were prosecuted.


Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen appears to have been recovered in Italy in better condition that its counterpart. Apart from some minor wear to the edges of the canvas the painting is in otherwise good condition. Like its counterpart, it will undergo a full examination and any necessary conservation treatment once the Italian authorities have concluded their court proceeding.


If you are interested in studying art crime, ARCA offers an annual, summer-long interdisciplinary academic program in Italy. For more information, visit www.artcrimeresearch.org.

Lynda Albertson

is the CEO of ARCA, the Association for Research into Crimes against Art, an international research group based in Italy. For more information visit www.artcrimeresearch.org.