August 21, 2013

Museum van Bommel van Dam Theft: Arthur Brand on recovering paintings and how one stolen painting reached Sotheby's in London

by Catherine Schofield Sezgin, ARCA Blog Editor

Last night art investigator Arthur Brand sent me a link to the story in Dutch ('Sotheby's London sold stolen Dutch art despite warnings') charging that Sotheby's in London had sold a painting stolen in March from the Museum van Bommel van Dam. quotes NRC, another Dutch media agency, on the story that the Art Loss Register warned Sotheby's that the painting by Shoonhoven that eventually sold in June for 182,500 pounds had been stolen three months earlier.

Here's the brief report of the theft by on March 22 ("Thieves steal four works from modern art museum in Venlo"):
Thieves have stolen four works of art from the Museum van Bommel van Dam in Venlo forcing the front door in the early hours of Friday morning. Three of the works are by Jan Schoonhoven and one by Tomas Rajlich and they have a combined value of €1.1m, museum officials said.
Venlo is located about 180 km southeast of Amsterdam. The modern art museum opened in the province of Limburg in 1971 with 1,100 artworks collected by Maarten and Reina van Bommel-van Dam.

Via email, I asked Mr. Brand to explain how he became involved in recovering the paintings and this was his response:
As you might know, I specialize in solving museum thefts, discovering fakes, and illicitly traded antiquities. In the case of museum thefts, my main goal is to return the stolen artworks. Catching the thieves is not a priority, unless somebody was murdered or hurt during the robbery. In fact, a museum theft is a regular burglary but with a valuable loot. People like me, or Dick Ellis and Charley Hill (both former Scotland Yard), specialize in bringing these artworks back home where they belong. People who are in the possession of stolen art - mostly not the original thieves - prefer to contact us instead of going to the police. 
A few weeks ago I was contacted by someone who needed to talk to me. He had read about me in the media and knew that I had returned stolen objects to the police in various countries. I arranged a few meetings with him in Amsterdam. After I had gained his confidence, he told me that he had discovered that three works of art in his possession had been stolen from a museum in Venlo in The Netherlands. He told me that he had quite a criminal record but that he was an art lover too. He just could not burn the paintings in order to get rid of them. But, if he himself would turn them in, they would arrest him anyway, he said, although he had bought these pieces legally in some shop. He showed me a receipt.
I answered that I don’t mind what, who and when: nobody was hurt during the robbery and the main goal was to bring the pieces back. After all, the paintings from the recent Kunsthal Rotterdam theft, also in the Netherlands, might have been burned after the thieves panicked. I told him that my work is to prevent people from panicking. I also explained to him that in cases like this, recovering the pieces is the main goal. I offered to return the two works and to keep his name out which he appreciated because “that option is far better than burning the art…” 
He told me that there was one more secret. According to him, he had auctioned one of the four stolen artworks at Sotheby’s, London, before finding out that the two others in his possession were stolen. He checked the painting-numbers from the four stolen ones with the ones auctioned at Sotheby’s but they did not correspond. But he still could not believe that that one was not stolen too. So he gave me the paperwork of the auction and told me to deliver that too to the police. And then he said: “Arthur, I will go with you…” 
So he went without me to get the two stolen works, came back and we went to the police station. We smoked a cigarette outside, gave each other a hug and then went in."
Now it turns out that the Art Loss Register had warned Sotheby’s that their lot might be a stolen one but after Sotheby’s checked the numbers on the back – which did not correspond – they decided to sell it anyway. The buyer – an expert in the work of Schoonhoven, the artist – discovered that it indeed was stolen from the museum in Venlo, only three months before the auction.  How on earth could this have happened? What a shame.


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