Last Monday, Van Gogh’s The Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in Spring, which had been stolen from the Singer Laren museum in the Netherlands 2020, reappeared in Amsterdam, wrapped in a bloody pillowcase, placed inside an IKEA bag.
On Wednesday, the Blood of Jesus was returned to the Catholic Church. An ornate golden relic said to contain drops of Christ’s blood, it had been taken from the sacristy at Fécamp abbey in Normandy last year.
On Sunday, a 1.5 tonne bronze horse which once adorned the Reich Chancellery was reunited with its twin in a German museum. Made by Hitler’s favourite sculptor, the horses were moved in 1942 to protect them from Allied bombers; they were later seized by the Red Army, then disappeared after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The connection between the three? They were all recovered by the same man.
It’s fair to say last week was a particularly successful one for Arthur Brand. Known as the Indiana Jones of the art world, over two decades he has built a reputation as an art detective.
Brand, a 53-year-old Dutchman, has neither a policing background nor a high security office in which to conduct his international investigations, often involving sprawling criminal networks and foreign police forces. He works mostly alone at home in Amsterdam, pursuing priceless stolen paintings and artefacts on the phone using a phone book filled with criminals and sleuths. In nine out of ten cases he is asked to look at, he doesn’t even receive a fee.
It’s a “hobby”, says Brand. How many people, though, can say their hobby landed them on the front page of last week’s Wall Street Journal?
Brand hit the headlines last week when the stolen Van Gogh turned up at his door after a three and a half year hunt. Most of the jobs he takes on are unsolvable cases which “have reached the statute of limitations”. “Hitler’s Horses was a case that was 75 years old,” he says. “I’m always interested in cold cases. But this happened right under my nose, 25 km from my home. So what can I do?” he chuckles. “You have to act.”
The police came to him about the Garden at Nuenen immediately after it was stolen, in a smash and grab in the early hours of March 30 2020. They were eager to recover it swiftly – after all, “it’s Dutch cultural heritage,” says Brand, speaking over the phone from his flat in Amsterdam. “They called me and said there is a Van Gogh that has been stolen. Keep your ears open.
“I started investigating this case at the same time as the police.”
His first call was to a man called Octave Durham – a former art thief jailed for stealing two Van Goghs in 2004. Italian police found the paintings he had boosted from the Van Gogh museum in the wall of the kitchen in a house near Naples that belonged to Raffaele Imperiale, a mob boss who used the painting to trade with the Italian government for a lesser sentence for drug trafficking. Durham was the police’s first suspect; to Brand, “Okkie” is a valued contact. “I chased him for ten years… and when he got out of jail he stopped stealing and we became friends. These days he helps me to recover stolen art.”
Durham “knows people who would never talk to me”, says Brand. “I can call him and say I need to talk to this guy, can you arrange a meeting? And he can. I said Okkie, if you hear something, let me know.”
“The other thing I started to do was to reach out to big criminals in the Netherlands. I told them: ‘Look, this piece has been stolen, I’m sure it will be offered to people, you might be one of them. Please don’t touch it.’”
Why wouldn’t they? Or, rather, why shouldn’t they? Because the art theft game isn’t what it used to be, says Brand. Where a stolen Rembrandt or Picasso was once a useful bargaining chip for drug lords trying to reduce their sentences, few judicial systems will now enter into that sort of trade these days. In 2023, high value art is like a “hot potato”.
“It goes from one group to another. And I’m always one group behind. When someone gives me a lead I contact that group and it turns out they don’t have it anymore so I move to the next group,” says Brand.
“It is a hot potato because in 99 per cent of cases there is no reward. If they catch you you get a high fine and go to jail for many years.
“You cannot sell it on the black market because no one wants to touch it. In some cases a drug lord will buy it because he still thinks he can get a lower sentence. That doesn’t work anymore.”
The thief, named in Dutch media as Nils M, was eventually found by Dutch police and imprisoned; Peter Roy K, the criminal who it’s believed ordered the heist in an attempt to negotiate his sentence down, was already behind bars.
Three years went by; the painting was yet to be found. Brand was still working on the case on “an almost daily basis”. Once everyone connected to the heist was in jail, the police were forced to scale down their investigation. “They called me and they said ‘Arthur, get us back the painting’.”
Brand made his way through his network, spreading the word that the Garden at Nuenen was to be avoided at all costs. Finding stolen artwork, he says, is often a case of methodically ruling people out. Somewhere along the chain, as a painting is passed between gangs, there will eventually be someone who just wants rid of it.
“Some are on the run for other cases, drug related cases. What I do is try to reach them through other people. I call an informant and say ‘do you know where this guy is hiding?’, or ‘what’s his phone number?’, or ‘can you arrange a meeting for me with him?’
“Sometimes I succeed and sometimes I don’t. I want them to feel that [I won’t] give up – this painting should come back.”
For months he “kept on working”. “Then you hope that somebody steps forward. And indeed, a couple of weeks ago came the message.”
Brand was working when his phone lit up with a WhatsApp from an unknown number. “Mr Brand, do you have an obligation of confidentiality?”
“No,” he replied. “I’m not a priest. But if I give my word, I keep it.” Dan Brown himself couldn’t write such a line.
He gets messages like this “weekly” so didn’t think much of it. When he looked at his phone again he saw it was about the Van Gogh. “Then of course you sit straight up in your chair.”
He asked for proof and was sent a photo that looked convincing. He had police contacts verify this man had nothing to do with the theft itself. A couple of days later, Brand was at a party when he heard from the man again. He messaged again to say he was sitting in the square outside, and could see him. “I went there, it was on a bench, under a tree, it’s dark. We sat down together outside the party because it was warm.
“He just wanted to look me in the eyes – he said I’m going to bring you something and I don’t want to get in any trouble.”
Doesn’t he ever get even the slightest burst of fear in these situations? “You don’t find stolen art at the Salvation Army so of course you have to talk to people in the criminal world,” he says.
In fact, he finds the people he comes across are usually “more afraid of me than I am of them because they know I work with the police. They are always afraid that behind every tree is a policeman.”
They arranged the handover for Monday at 1pm. “He said ‘where should we meet?’ I said ‘how about my home? You’re just going to bring something back, everyone will be happy, the police are not interested in you because everybody who was involved was in jail, so why do it in a dark forest?’ He smiled.”
Sure enough, on Monday afternoon, there he was at Brand’s front door with a bright blue Ikea bag.
“I said ‘are you serious? Is it in there?’ He said ‘you bet it is.’ I thought my God. three and a half years of my life of chasing this thing and here it is. I said ‘thank you so much, hopefully we will see each other again one day’. And he said ‘I’m sure we will meet again’. Then he walked away and I went upstairs.”
A colleague was waiting to film him opening it; the museum director was around the corner and hot-footed it to Brand’s flat. The police arrived shortly after. They celebrated with a beer.
Brand ranks the Van Gogh as one of his speedier finds. Most cases, he says, take five or ten years. He earns a living writing about his work, giving keynote speeches and advising art collectors. “They call me and say ‘Arthur, I want to buy a Picasso – can you find a couple of things out for me? Is it legal? Is this piece stolen? Was it stolen in WWII because there could still be a claim on it? Is it authentic, or is it a forgery? And is the price right?’”
He has been acting detective for 20 years – an obsession born out of an early love of Roman coins. “I soon realised that even those were being forged. So then I started reading about how 30 per cent of the art and antiquities market is fake. So I thought what an interesting world.”
Over the years he has built up relationships with police forces across the world, from England to South America. When their own investigations fail, they will often call on Brand. In the UK, he is currently on the hunt for the rosary Mary Queen of Scots held when she was being beheaded, stolen from Arundel Castle in 2021.
In 2019, he recovered Oscar Wilde’s ring for the Oxford college from which it was stolen. As a huge Wilde fan that one was a particular thrill. “The Oscar Wilde ring I had on my finger for two weeks. That’s the way you enjoy it.”
He has also, incidentally, had a Picasso he recovered for one night on his wall; he hung the Van Gogh for an hour. He doesn’t himself own any expensive art. “I’m not rich enough.”
He is sanguine about the Indiana Jones thing. “Ah that’s all bulls—. Part of me likes it because I can show off to girls, but the other part of me feels ashamed. I don’t have a driver’s licence, I tried to paint my home and it all went wrong so now I have to hire a real painter.
“Indiana Jones is a handsome, intelligent, good looking guy. I am just Arthur Brand.”
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