How to steal Van Gogh?
AMSTERDAM, «Some people are born teachers, some are footballers. I am a born robber. « So says Octave Durham, who stole two priceless paintings by Vincent van Gogh on the evening of December 7, 2002. Fourteen years after he and his accomplice climbed onto the roof of the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam, smashed the window with a sledge hammer and removed the canvases from the wall, Durham finally admitted his involvement in one of the most famous crimes in the field of art in the post-war period. The former thief starred in a 45-minute documentary, which was shown on Dutch television on March 21, the same day when the canvases themselves returned to the walls of the museum.
This confession will not have legal consequences for Octave Durham, who was convicted in 2004 and served in prison for slightly more than 25 months, but it sheds light not only on the difficult journey of the famous canvases and their salvation, but also on the whole system of theft of art objects.
«The theft took about 3 minutes 40 seconds,» Durham says. «When it was over, the police arrived at the museum. I drove past them in my car, taking off my ski mask and lowering the glass. I drove through and looked at them, I heard them talking about their scanner of the police wave. They did not know it was me. «
The returned works are priceless, they never hit the market. «View of the sea in Scheveningen» (1882) is one of the two seascapes of Van Gogh written by him in the Netherlands, and «Leaving the Protestant church in Nyuenen» (1882-84), depicting the church, pastor in which the artist’s father served, was donated by Van Gogh to his mother.
However, Durham did not know the historical value of the paintings. He just took the smallest and closest paintings from the broken window, stuffed them in a bag and fled, descending the rope, which he and his accomplice had previously fixed. When the thief fell to the ground, he landed unsuccessfully, damaging the paint on the seascape. During the flight, Durham left a black baseball cap at the crime scene. The security guard of the museum called the police, but she was not allowed to use force to try and stop the robbers.
«It was a really terrible day,» recalls Nienke Bakker, curator of the Van Gogh museum, in an interview with The New York Times.
When Durham returned home, he took off the picture frames and glass and shook the paint off the landscape in the toilet. Later, he threw the frames into the canal. The thief could not openly sell canvases, so he let them hear about them in the black market and later met with Cor van Hout, who was convicted in 1983 for kidnapping beer magnate Alfred Heineken. Van Hout agreed to buy paintings, but was killed on the day of the deal.
Later, Durham and his accomplice Henk Bieslijn contacted the Italian bandit Raffaele Imperiale, who at that time was selling marijuana in Amsterdam. He agreed to buy paintings in March 2003 for 350,000 euros (about 380,000 dollars), which the thieves divided equally. The lawyers of Imperial confirmed that he bought the paintings, although he knew that they were stolen. They explained this by saying that «he is fond of art», and this was a «good deal». After the purchase, Imperial sent the canvas to Italy and never showed them to anyone.
Thieves quickly spent all their money.
«Motorcycles, Mercedes E320, clothes, jewelry for a friend, a trip to New York,» recalls Durham. These purchases helped investigators get a reason for his arrest, but Durham ran away in time, climbing the wall of the building, a skill for which he was nicknamed «monkey.» His house was searched, but no pictures were found. Durham fled to Spain, where he was arrested in December 2003. Expertise confirmed that the DNA from the baseball cap belongs to Durham and the same year he and Beslin were convicted.
Durham was released in 2006. He still has to pay 350,000 euros in fines. In 2013, Durham came to the museum and, although he still insisted on innocence, offered to help find work. The management of the museum rejected his proposal, because it decided that he was trying to sell the canvases so. In 2015, Durham met with documentary filmmaker Vincent Verweij and told him that he wanted to help find the paintings in order to clear himself of the debt to the museum and end the criminal life.
«I said frankly that I do not believe him,» recalls Verwey in an interview.
Only after Durham confessed to the theft, the director began work on the film. Already during the filming, Verwey learned that on August 29, 2016, the Imperial sent a letter to the Naples Prosecutor’s Office, informing him that he had paintings. At that time, the Italian police already densely took up his person. In September last year, police searched the mother house of the Imperial, where they found work wrapped in cloth and hidden in a hiding place inside the wall. Prosecutor Willem Nijkerk specifically noted that Octave Durham did not play any role in the return of masterpieces to his homeland.
Nienke Bakker, curator of the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam, recalls how at the end of September she received a call and was asked to urgently go to Naples. She was not told the details, but she immediately guessed everything.
«I immediately realized that the pictures from our museum,» - she said. Bakker was surprised that the work in a relatively good condition. Only in the left corner of the seascape there were visible damage. Already in February, the canvases were exhibited for three weeks at the National Museum of Capodimonte in Naples, after which they went to Amsterdam.
Imperial fled the Netherlands to Dubai in 2013 or 2014. For his letter to the Neapolitan prosecutor, he may have hoped for condescension, but in January he was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Today the Italian authorities are seeking his extradition, but the Mafiosi’s lawyers said that he is unlikely to return to Italy.
«He misses his homeland, but in Dubai he is a free man,» the lawyers of Imperial said in a telephone interview. Durham, who lives in Amsterdam and works as a driver and assistant to his daughter, a successful musician, did not receive a reward for his participation in the search for paintings.
«You will never see documentaries or articles about the art of theft from the point of view of a thief,» explained his agreement to this controversial Vervey project. «They are removed by experts, museum workers, prosecutors, but never those who actually committed crimes, and I think that this is a unique view. This does not mean that we admire this guy. «
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