Proof of life: Photos emerge of stolen Van Gogh painting

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — A Dutch art sleuth has received “proof-of-life” photos of a Vincent van Gogh painting stolen in late March from a Dutch museum that was closed at the time because of the coronavirus.

Arthur Brand, an art detective with a long track record of recovering stolen works, said Thursday that he received the photos recently and that they have been circulating in Mafia circles.

The Singer Laren museum, from which the painting was stolen in a brazen smash-and-grab burglary on March 30, did not immediately return a call seeking comment on the photos.

One of the photos show the painting, “The Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in Spring 1884,” flanked by a May 30 copy of the international edition of The New York Times and a book about a thief who in 2002 stole two Van Gogh paintings from the Amsterdam museum dedicated to the Dutch master. The Times front page features a story about the art thief.

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The second photo shows the back of the painting with a sticker bearing the name Vincent van Gogh, the dates 1853-1890 and handwritten text including the name of the painting in Dutch.

The 25-by-57-centimeter (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.

Van Gogh worked on it when he had moved back to his family in a rural area of the Netherlands and painted the life he saw there, including his famous work “The Potato Eaters,” in mostly somber tones.

Later, he moved to southern France, where he developed a far more colorful, vibrant style of painting as his health declined before his death in 1890.

Brand said he was relieved to see the painting that he said did not appear badly damaged, although a white mark is visible on the work, just below and to the left of the person standing in the garden.

“In some cases when art is stolen, the thieves get nervous, they can’t get rid of it or they think the police is on their tail so they destroy it,” he told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. “So these pictures show that we are dealing with professionals. So the painting is still alive, I wanted to say.”

Brand said he had shared the photos with police investigating the theft.

Police spokeswoman Laetitia Griffioen said the photos “are part of the investigation.” She declined further comment.

Brand said tracking down the painting will be tricky. “But at least we have proof of life by publishing these pictures.”

He said the photos circulating in the underworld may be a way of looking for a buyer for the painting.

He speculated that the March theft was a “copycat” of the 2002 theft from the Van Gogh Museum. Those two paintings were eventually found in 2016 in a farmhouse near Naples by police investigating suspected Italian mobsters for cocaine trafficking.

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