Unsolved Art Heists: The Missing Paintings of Vincent van Gogh

An estimated 5 billion dollars’ worth of art and antiquities are stolen each year.1 Naturally, well-known artists top the lists of most valuable paintings ever stolen—The Storm on the Sea of Galilee by Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606–1669) and The Concert by Johannes Vermeer (Dutch, 1632–1675) taken from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston in March 1990, a Paul Cezanne (French, 1839–1906) landscape stolen during a New Year’s Eve celebration from the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford in 1999, and a Pablo Picasso (Spanish, 1881–1973) Cubist work and a Piet Mondrian (Dutch, 1872–1944) painting taking from the Greek National Art Gallery while they were short-staffed during strikes.

Vincent van Gogh’s paintings are also among the most frequently stolen. At least 13 of his paintings have been stolen and recovered—two of them twice. Another 85 works have been lost and remain missing. And three other paintings that were stolen are still at large.

Stolen Paintings still Missing
Vincent van Gogh (Dutch, 1853–1890) is best known for his Post-Impressionist paintings such as Starry Night (1889), but the three stolen and still-missing works—Poppy Flowers (1887), View of the Sea at Scheveningen (1882), and Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuene (1884)—are lesser-known paintings.

Poppy Flowers by Vincent van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh, Poppy Flowers, 1887

Van Gogh painted the small oil on canvas Poppy Flowers when he was living with his brother Theo at 54 rue Lepic in Montmartre.2 While in Paris, van Gogh met and painted alongside artists like Paul Gauguin (French, 1848–1903), Edgar Degas (French, 1834–1917), and Camille Pissarro (French, 1830–1903), and this work shows their influence. Poppy Flowers was stolen twice from the Mohammed Mahmoud Khalil Museum in Cairo, Egypt. It was stolen for first time in June 1997, and was recovered 10 years later in Kuwait. It was stolen again in August 2010, and remains missing. In the second theft, according to the BBC,3 the work was cut from its frame and the thief easily walked out of the museum. The police blamed poor security: “none of the alarms at the Khalil Museum and only seven out of 43 security cameras were working.” The painting is estimated to be worth US$50 million, which seems high considering comparable sales at auction (click here to see all works that have been up for sale at auction by Vincent van Gogh). And though the museum had only 10 visitors that day, the work and the thieves remain at large.

The two other paintings still missing were taken in one event at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam in December 2002.

View of the Sea at Scheveningen by Vincent van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh, View of the Sea at Scheveningen, 1882

View of the Sea at Scheveningen is an early oil on canvas, painted at a beach resort near The Hague. According to the Van Gogh Museum, van Gogh painted outside, and the windy day depicted left grains of sand stuck in the paint that were still there when the work was taken. The other work stolen from the museum was Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuene. This painting of the church where van Gogh’s father was the pastor was a gift to his mother after she broke her leg because “she was ‘amused with trifles,’ as he wrote to Theo.”4

To steal the two paintings, the thieves entered the Van Gogh Museum from the roof, using a ladder to get past the security guards and cameras.5 The museum did not blame security, stating that the video cameras and alarms were working; indeed, the alarm went off, but the thieves still escaped. Two suspects were arrested in 2004 and later convicted, but the paintings were never found. Over a decade later, the museum is still offering a reward of €100,000 for information to return the paintings in good condition.6

Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuene by Vincent van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh, Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuene, 1884

Why steal a van Gogh painting?

With these heists, it is unknown if the thieves sought out specific works, or if they just grabbed whatever was accessible or easiest to steal. Still, there are key factors that make van Gogh paintings likely targets—volume and accessibility of works, the value of the works themselves, and the immeasurable value of van Gogh works that affect their resale value.

Despite his short life, van Gogh was prolific. He began painting in the early 1880s, and shot himself in 1890 at age 37. In that time, van Gogh painted over 850 oil paintings and created over 1,300 prints, watercolors, and drawings. The many paintings in museums, such as the Van Gogh Museum, are on display because institutions are committed to showing his works to the public—which makes them more vulnerable to theft. In the case of Poppy Flowers, the work was so vulnerable that 15 museum employees were charged and convicted of negligence by an Egyptian court.7

The market value of a painting is important to set the reward and insurance value for a stolen work, but it can be difficult to determine. Ed Caesar recently analyzed the value of stolen art in The New York Times. He estimated the black market value of a stolen painting is 7 to 10 percent of the actual market value. When newspapers overestimate the value of a work, it can increase the black market value, further incentivizing thieves. Of another art heist, Caesar writes: “Criminals, presumably, read newspapers—and newspapers had drastically inflated the value of the … missing works.”8 Of course, if a work is too well known, it can be difficult to sell it illegally, and Caesar asserts that many works are instead often traded as black market currency.

Finally, the immeasurable reasons why we love art add a different kind of value to paintings by van Gogh. This intangible value is what auctioneer Philip Hook calls “positive romantic baggage.” He explains it as the “back-story to artists’ lives that affects our appreciation of them and the works they produce. Quite apart from the importance to art history of van Gogh and his significance as the originator of Expressionism, there is a tragic romance to his life that enhances his value to the collector, emotionally and financially.”9

Thieves steal van Gogh paintings for their value and perhaps for love.

Other van Gogh paintings stolen and later recovered:

Blossoming Chestnut Branches in 2008 from the Foundation E.G. Bührle in Switzerland

The Fortifications of Paris with Houses (The Ramparts of Paris) in 2003 from the Whitworth Art Gallery at The University of Manchester in London

• In 1998, Weaver’s Interior, Four Cut Sunflowers, and The Potato Eaters while on loan at the Kroller-Muller Museum

• From the Van Gogh Museum in 1991, Still Life Vase with Fifteen Sunflowers, The Potato Eaters, Still Life with Irises, Wheatfield with Crows, and Still Life with Bible

• In 1990, Digging Farmer’s Wife, The Sitting Farmer’s Wife, and Wheels of the Water Mill in Gennep from the Noordbrabants Museum in Den Bosch, the Netherlands

• Stolen twice in 1975, and recovered twice, Breton Women (after Emile Bernard) from the Municipal Museum in Milan

Van Gogh’s works at auction have had a very high sell-through rate. For more information, and to view his sales compared to other artists or to stock indices, check out artnet Analytics Reports.

To see prices for all works that have been up for sale at auction by Vincent van Gogh, search our Price Database.

Legal details of stolen art are best clarified by art lawyers.

1 Sandy Nairne, Art Theft and the Case of the Stolen Turners, (Reaktion Books: London, 2012).

2 Marc Edo Tralbaut, Vincent van Gogh, (The Viking Press: New York, 1969).

3 “Faulty alarms blamed for Van Gogh theft in Egypt,” BBC, August 22, 2010,
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-11053314.

4 Tralbaut, 127.

5 “Two van Gogh Works Are Stolen in Amsterdam,” The New York Times, December 8, 2002,http://www.nytimes.com/2002/12/08/world/two-van-gogh-works-are-stolen-in-amsterdam.html.

6 “Van Gogh Museum offers reward for information about theft of paintings,” Van Gogh Museum Press Releases, June 21, 2003,http://www.vangoghmuseum.nl/vgm/index.jsp?page=7995&lang=en.

7 “15 officials charged with negligence over van Gogh theft,” Egypt Independent, August 23, 2010,http://www.egyptindependent.com/news/15-officials-charged-negligence-over-van-gogh-theft.

8 Ed Caesar, “What Is the Value of Stolen Art, The New York Times, November 13, 2013,http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/17/magazine/what-is-the-value-of-stolen-art.html?ref=design.

9 Philip Hook, “What sells art?” The Guardian, November 18, 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2013/nov/18/what-sells-art.