A global pandemic, a scenario in which people are ordered to stay home and businesses and institutions are forced to temporarily close, presents itself as an opportunity for bad people to do bad things. And this very much includes the pilfering of invaluable art and artifacts at a time when millions upon millions of people are on lockdown.
Singer Laren, a Dutch art museum and concert hall located in the affluent small town of Laren just outside of Amsterdam in North Holland, experienced this phenomenon firsthand when a thief or thieves pulled off a smash-and-grab job in the dead of the night, making off with a painting by Vincent van Gogh—and, even more shamelessly, on the post-impressionist’s 167th birthday.
Like many other museums and cultural institutions, Singer Laren is temporarily closed due to the outbreak of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19). Shuttered since March 12, the museum has tentative plans to reopen to guests on June 1. As noted by the Washington Post, the brazen burglary at Singer Laren has likely garnered the uneasy attention of museum directors elsewhere as “the lack of crowds and security potentially compromised by staffing issues during the virus outbreak may present an invitation to opportunistic thieves.”
The stolen painting, The Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in Spring (1884), was not part of the permanent collection at Singer Laren, a museum established in the late 1950s by the window of Pittsburgh-born steel fortune heir-turned-artist William Henry Singer to house the couple’s vast art collection. Rather, the 1884 oil painting, completed by Van Gogh relatively early in his career while living with his parents outside of Eindhoven, was on loan from the larger Groninger Museum as part of an expansive exhibition of 19th-century Dutch paintings and watercolors at Singer Laren titled Mirror of the Soul.
Housed in buildings designed by Philippe Starck, Alessandro Mendini, and Coop Himmelb(l)au, the Groninger Museum is located in the city of Groningen in the far north of the Netherlands. In a statement, the museum said it was “shocked by the news“ and added that the work is the only Van Gogh painting in its own collection.
The 10-by-22-inch Van Gogh painting has been valueed at up to $6.6 million as reported by The Guardian.
In a press conference, Singer Laren director Jan Rudolph de Lorm described himself as being “unbelievably pissed off” by the overnight art heist.
“We are deeply shocked, angry and saddened,” reads a full statement by de Lorm, published on the museum website. “A magnificent and poignant painting by one of our greatest artists has been taken from the community. It is terrible for the Groninger Museum and for Singer Laren, but above all for every one of us. Art exists to be shared, to enjoy, to inspire and offer comfort, particularly in times such as these. Art is vital to our culture.”
The thief/thieves gained entry to the museum at 3:15 a.m. on March 30 by smashing in the glass front doors. This immediately triggered a security alarm but the culprits—and the painting—had vanished into the night by the time police arrived on the scene.
The statement released by Singer Laren goes on to note that the museum has launched a full investigation “involving experts from several fields, including forensic investigators, detectives and members of the national crime squad specialised in art theft.”
As the Associated Press noted, this is not the first time that art has been purloined from Singer Laren. In 2007, thieves made off with several sculptures from the museum’s garden including a bronze cast of Rodin’s The Thinker. That sculpture was ultimately recovered albeit missing a leg.