Van Gogh, Van Gogh-ing, Van Gone: Dutch Art Theft and COVID-19.

AuthorKlokker, Kathryn

On 30 March 1853, Vincent Van Gogh was born in the province of North Brabant in the Netherlands. (1) 167 years later, on 30 March 2020, one of his oil paintings, The Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in Spring, was stolen from the Singer Laren Museum in the Netherlands, about 70 miles from Van Gogh's birthplace. (2)

Two weeks before this, on 14 March, three paintings were stolen from Christ Church College in Oxford. (3) A possible link between these two thefts, in two different countries, with no clear criminal affiliation and two different types of paintings is the COVID-19 pandemic which has given rise to stricter measures on public movement, pressure on police and security and a general level of overall disorganisation and upheaval of routines. (4)

  1. The Stolen Works

    The Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in Spring Theft

    Van Gogh's father was the pastor of the parish of Nuenen, where Van Gogh lived between December 1883 and November 1885, the beginning of which he spent in his father's home. (5) He completed oil paintings and drawings of the gardens, the street facade and the garden facade of the parsonage. (6)

    The parsonage garden had a view of the tower of the old, ruined village church, with this tower being depicted in many of Van Gogh's earliest works painted in Nuenen. (7) This particular painting, The Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in Spring, was finished in 1884. (8) In the foreground of the painting, you can see a person walking along a path in the garden and in the background, the tower of the ruined church is on the horizon. (9)

    The Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in Spring was on display at the Singer Laren Museum whilst on loan from the Groninger Museum. The surveillance footage from the Museum shows a man arrive on a motorcycle, break the front glass with a sledgehammer and smash through the gift shop inner-entrance, before running back out through the gift shop, with the painting under his arm and sledgehammer in the other hand. (10)

    The director of the Singer Laren Museum, Jan Rudolph de Lorm, said at a news conference after the theft, "I am shocked and unbelievably pissed off", and; "It is very bad for the Groninger Museum. It's also very bad for Singer". (11) "In the early hours of 30 March--about two weeks after museums in the Netherlands closed to slow the spread of coronavirus--circumstances were pretty much ideal for a burglary." (12)

    Christ Church College Oxford Theft

    The three paintings stolen from Christ Church College in Oxford were: Sir Anthony Van Dyck's A Soldier on Horseback (1616); Annibale Caracci's A Boy Drinking (c. 1580); and Salvator Rosa's A Rocky Coast, With Soldiers Studying A Plan (late 1640s). (13)

    Sir Anthony Van Dyck's A Soldier on Horseback is an oil painting that was bequeathed to Christ Church College in 1765 by General John Guise. (14) Whilst the stolen painting depicts a rather simplistic earth-toned image of a man riding a horse, Van Dyck was renowned as one of the greatest portrait artists of the seventeenth century. (15)

    Annibale Caracci's A Boy Drinking is another oil painting that was a part of the collection given to the University by General John Guise in 1765. (16) This painting shows a boy tipping a clear glass to his mouth, holding a half-filled glass jug in front of him. (17) Caracci was the most admired painter of his time and was a major player in the development of the Baroque style. (18)

    Salvator Rosa's A Rocky Coast, With Soldiers Studying A Plan was the third oil painting in the Christ Church Oxford theft. This painting was bequeathed to the university in 1966 by Sir Richard Nosworthy. (19) Rosa was a notoriously unorthodox character who painted a wide variety of subjects ranging from portraits to allegories. He also made etchings and was a writer, creating poems and satires. (20)

    Christ Church Oxford was founded in 1546 and has many famous alumnae. (21) The aforementioned General John Guise was himself an alumnus and decorated army general who donated his entire collection of over 200 works in 1765 to the Christ Church Picture Gallery. (22) Since then, from many other significant donations, it has grown to be one of the most valuable private collections in Britain. (23) The value of the three stolen paintings was estimated at around 10 million [pounds sterling]. (24)

  2. The COVID-19 Pandemic "La tristesse durera toujours"

    [The sadness will last forever]--Vincent Van Gogh (25)

    The COVID-19 outbreak has disrupted almost every aspect of modern life. (26) With countries all over the world restricting travel, work and leaving home, there are hardly any industries that have not been affected. This includes the art world.

    On 31 December 2019, Chinese authorities alerted the World Health Organization (WHO) about multiple pneumonia-like cases in the Wuhan province of China. (27) Between this time and 17 January 2020 the outbreak began spreading to other countries such as Thailand and Japan. (28) The United States confirmed its first case on 21 January. (29) Between 18 and 24 January, the first cases were seen in Europe and the United States. On 30 January, the WHO declared the coronavirus outbreak a 'Public Health Emergency of International Concern'. (30) The United Kingdom confirmed its first case on 31 January, and the Netherlands on 27 February. (31) The status of the coronavirus as of 13 March, 2020, the day before the Christ Church Picture Gallery theft, was: 121 countries with confirmed cases, 142,095 cases confirmed globally, and 5,373 deaths recorded due to the coronavirus. (32) On 17 March, the European Union closed its borders to all non-essential travel.

    The Netherlands began restricting visiting to its museums from 12 March. (33) Even stricter public measures came into force on 15 March. (34) When the Van Gogh painting was taken on 30 March, these stricter measures had been in place for just over two weeks.

    After the theft at Christ Church, the Picture Gallery was shut down, putting it in line with many other UK museums. (35)

  3. Crime Rates, Property Theft

    During the outbreak, many places have seen an increase in crimes such as car breakins, car thefts and break-ins to businesses that are closed or have modified hours. (36) On 21 April, CNN reported that the New York Police Department (NYPD) had data showing that reports of car thefts had increased by 53 per...

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