The Mystery of the Painting Thieves Love

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“Two Laughing Boys with a Mug of Beer,” a painting by Frans Hals, has hung in a tiny museum in Leerdam, a town in the Netherlands, for most of the past 248 years.

One has to use the qualifier “most” because the painting was lent out on occasion, was moved for safekeeping when the Nazis came and — as many in the town know — it has been stolen three times.

It went missing for the third time last August when the work, conservatively valued at more than $10 million, was taken three days before the 354th anniversary of Hals’ death. Left behind was a gaping space on the wall of the Museum Hofje van Mevrouw van Aerden, an almshouse for unmarried women that also showcases the collection of its 18th-century founder, Maria van Aerden.

“It’s really that painting for some reason, and I don’t know why,” said Christa Hendriksen, an alderman responsible for culture in Leerdam, a town of 20,000 best known for its glassworking. “I don’t have an answer for that.”

It is indeed surprising, even mysterious, when any work of art is stolen multiple times. Does its brushwork contain some clue to hidden treasure, or a secret code? Could it be coveted by some cult that worships Hals, or perhaps beer?

There have certainly been other works particularly fancied by burglars.

Versions of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” were taken from museums in Oslo in 1994 and 2004. “The Cornfield,” by Jacob van Ruisdael, was stolen three times from a stately home south of Dublin, including once by the Irish Republican Army. Rembrandt’s portrait “Jacob de Gheyn III” has been stolen so many times from the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London (four between 1967 and 1983) that it’s known as “The Takeaway Rembrandt.”

But experts say that, while some may entertain the notion of thieves stealing on commission for burghers fascinated by the Dutch Golden Age, the motivations for such thefts are likely more pedestrian.

The works are typically known commodities. Safe bets. Paintings whose value was established by prior thefts and by the fact that the police had tried so hard to find them. In other words, “Two Laughing Boys” may have been stolen again simply because it had been stolen before.

“They know they can get money out of it from somebody,” said Christopher A. Marinello, the founder of Art Recovery International. “They know the minimum value it brought. They know there might be an insurer.”

Arthur Brand, an independent art detective based in Amsterdam, said thieves often hope to steal masterpieces they can use as bargaining chips if they are ever charged with other crimes. So they look on the internet for famous thefts of the past.

“This is the one that comes up when you Google,” he said.

In the August burglary, there is video of two people on a scooter approaching the museum in the middle of the night. Under one theory of the heist, the thieves are thought to have scaled a gate into a rear garden before forcing a back door and climbing the stairs to the room where the Hals was kept. The alarm went off at 3:30 a.m.

The police later found an orange rope tied to a flagpole outside, which the fleeing thieves may have used to clamber down a 10-foot brick battlement wall, part of the original city fortifications, from the garden to the path below. The video captured the two people riding away on the scooter shortly after their arrival, one of them holding something large, like a painting. (The Hals is a bit over two feet high.)

When the theft was discovered, headlines across the world blared the news. The crime had all the elements: a famous work, a prior owner who had been a rich widow and previous thefts that featured a Dutch drug lord, demands for ransom and a law enforcement sting.

But in Leerdam, where, like a swan, the stolen painting keeps returning, there is a sense of loss but nothing approaching hysteria.

“I felt horrible when I heard the painting was stolen,” said the mayor, Sjors Fröhlich, who expressed confidence in recovery efforts by the police.

“The last two times it came back,” he said. “I think we can really get it back again.”

The website for the museum, which is closed to visitors because of the pandemic, has made no mention of the theft. Its Facebook page focuses instead on volunteers in the garden, pruning its mulberry tree and other plantings around the courtyard where 10 women still live in small attached homes built around 1772 beside the river Linge. The Hofje has hosted town weddings and municipal council meetings down the years, and the distinctive domed roof of the main building dominates the Leerdam skyline. (Locals call it their “Sacre Coeur.”)

Construction had been financed by the estate of Mrs. van Aerden, the widow of a wealthy Dutch notary, who died in 1764 and decreed in her will that special attention be paid to her late husband’s art collection. He had amassed 42 works, several of them by Dutch masters. The will stipulated that quantities of meat, wheat loaves and white wine be given to the “honest, decent” residents and that the paintings be kept, “neat and clean,” in the Regentenkamer, or Regents’ Room, on the second floor.

It also directed that the almshouse be run by three regents, all van Aerden relatives. But of late, it’s been a difficult to find relatives so just two regents run the place, with the help of volunteers.

Despite its impressive holdings, the almshouse only opened to the public as a museum a little over 10 years ago. The missing painting is the star of the collection.

Hals was, alongside Vermeer and Rembrandt, one of the giants of the Dutch Golden Age. Known for his commissioned portraits of stern public officials and well-to-do merchants, he also painted figures from contemporary life from the streets that caught his eye, like the “Gypsy Girl” or “Malle Babbe” (Mad Meg). Painted for the open market, the appeal of the genre paintings was their freer brush strokes and joyful immediacy, like the two boys in the Leerdam work, one staring into a jug of beer.

The picture, completed around 1628 when Hals was in his 40s, is comic but carries a moral admonition. The “tankard gazer” was a well-known phrase that implied a glutton or someone who was always looking for more, and this image was made more startling by depicting the drinkers as children.

“There are not that many genre paintings by Hals, and this is a relatively early one and it’s an incredible piece,” said Anna Tummers, who featured the painting in exhibitions when she was a curator at the Frans Hals Museum.

When the Nazis invaded, the Hals and the rest of the collection were moved out of the building as the Germans made the almshouse their headquarters. The paintings spent decades on loan at a museum in Rotterdam while the Hofje was being restored, and then hung undisturbed until 1988 when a masked man forced a window of one of the resident women’s homes on the side of the courtyard. He tied up the wife of the facility’s manager and had the manager switch off the alarm.

“Under threat of a firearm my father was forced to open the museum door,” said the manager’s son, Jos Slieker, who is the secretary of the Leerdam historical society.

Mr. Slieker said his father was able to press a second button to sound the alarm, but the thief managed to get away with the Hals and another painting, “Forest View with Flowering Elderberry,” by Jacob Salomonsz van Ruysdael.

Three years later, the two paintings were returned to the Hofje, after a ransom fee of 500,000 guilders (more than $250,000) was paid by the insurance company and Dutch authorities. According to the Dutch press, they had come into the possession, via a drug-related debt, of Klaas Bruinsma, a well-known Dutch criminal, and after Mr. Bruinsma was shot dead in front of the Amsterdam Hilton in 1991, his bodyguard had come forward to arrange their return. A year later, two suspects, a Dutch carpet dealer and a known German art thief, were arrested for the theft after their getaway driver, a girlfriend, came forward. They were convicted and sent to prison.

In 2011, the same two paintings were stolen again. The alarm sounded at 3 a.m. Witnesses saw a car — a dark-colored Mercedes or BMW — driving away with its headlamps dimmed, and the police found the Hals’ frame dumped in a hedge.

The thieves, it seems, had heard that one could score a recovery fee for stealing these paintings. The police recovered the works after five months when they were put into contact with four men seeking to negotiate the return of the paintings for a fee — about 1.5 million euros (roughly $2 million). The investigators arranged for an undercover agent to pose as a representative from the museum’s insurance company, and when the four men — all from the Amsterdam area, one an art dealer — surfaced they were arrested.

The men never identified the real thief, although they said they had planned to split the fee with him.

Both times the Hals was returned, the museum, with respect for tradition and buoyant optimism, hung it again on the wall. “The will says the collection has to remain intact and exhibited at the Hofje,” said Mr. Slieker.

“You have to show beautiful paintings!” said Guus Harms, the lead volunteer at the museum.

The police and the museum declined to outline what security improvements may have been made after the prior thefts. But Mr. Slieker said the museum has an alarm and motion sensors. The collection is also open only two afternoons a week and the paintings can be seen only with a guide.

Still, what’s clear is that the security in place, while likely more than suitable for a town museum, has not been sufficient to protect some world-class paintings.

“Leerdam is very small,” said Joost Lanshage, a spokesman for the regional police. “It’s not the Rijksmuseum. It’s just a small museum.”

The good news for the museum is that no one thinks the thieves will be able to sell such a well-known painting on the open market. So they will have to try something else, perhaps offering to return the painting for a fee.

“At the moment, nothing has been heard from the perpetrators,” said Mr. Harms. While they wait, a replica of the painting has been placed on the wall because those devoted to the museum found the empty space too painful to ponder.

Sander van Betten, a Dutch private detective, said Dutch authorities and insurance companies have become reluctant to pay ransoms because it encourages theft. Instead, he said, the thieves more likely stole the painting to use it as barter currency in the criminal underworld — with a value, he estimates, of between 2.5 and 3 million euros (up to about $3.6 million).

Here, again, the publicity of the multiple thefts probably works in a burglar’s favor. Even crooks are worried about authenticity, about not getting duped by a counterfeit, Mr. van Betten said.

So the Hals, with its robust record of being taken off the wall in Leerdam, will register as a sure thing.

“It’s a very famous painting,” Mr. van Betten said, “and everyone knows it’s stolen, so it’s not fake.”

Alain Delaquérière contributed research. Translations by Susan Ridder. Illustrations by Xiao Hua Yang.

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