A Dutch Court Upheld an Eight-Year Sentence for the Daring Serial Thief Who Stole Nearly $20 Million in Art From Museums

The court wants to send a message about the serious nature of art theft.

Evert van Os speaks to the press outside the museum on March 30, 2020 in Laren, about 30 kilometres southeast of Amsterdam, after a painting by Vincent van Gogh Parsonage Garden at Neunen in Spring (1884) was stolen. The museum was closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic at the time. The criminals entered the museum at around 3.15 am (0115 GMT) by breaking open a front glass door, police and Dutch news reports said. (Photo by Robin VAN LONKHUIJSEN / ANP / AFP) / Netherlands OUT (Photo by ROBIN VAN LONKHUIJSEN/ANP/AFP via Getty Images)

A man identified only as Nils M. has been sentenced to eight years in prison for stealing paintings by Vincent van Gogh and Frans Hals, worth nearly $20 million combined, from museums in the Netherlands. Both works are still missing. 

An appeals court handed down the maximum sentence to the 59-year old thief, whose full name has not been released due to Dutch privacy laws, according to the NL Times. He stole the canvases on two separate occasions in 2020. 

The Van Gogh painting, De Lentetuin (1884), was stolen in March 2020 from the Singer Laren museum just outside Amsterdam. M. was reported to have had at least one accomplice at the time, though the person has not been identified.

Five months later, in August, the Hals canvas Twee Lachende Jongens vanished from the Hofje van Mevrouw van Aerden in Leerdam. Neither institution immediately responded to a request for comment.

Security footage of the theft at the Singer Laren Museum in March of 2020.

Security footage of the theft at the Singer Laren Museum in March of 2020.

M. was ordered to pay compensation of more than $8.8 million (€8.7 million) to the Hofje van Mevrouw van Aerden museum for the missing Hals. The Singer Laren museum reportedly did not file a claim for damages. 

Van Gogh’s Parsonage Garden painting was on loan from the Groninger Museum in Groningen when it was stolen at roughly 3 a.m. Security footage showed that the thief used a sledgehammer to enter through the glass doors and then left with the canvas under his arm a few minutes later. The artwork’s frame was later found in the parking lot.

In its ruling, the court cited DNA evidence left behind on parts of the frame that authorities tied to the man. The judges also pointed out similarities between the “targeted” thefts: Both happened at regional museums with relatively small collections where the stolen works stood out as masterpieces by famous names.

The thief’s home in Baarn was just ten minutes by car from the Singer Laren, and less than 45 minutes away from the Leerdam museum near the border of Utrecht and Noord-Brabant, according to one report.

Vincent van Gogh, The Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in Spring(1884) ©Groninger Museum.

Vincent van Gogh, The Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in Spring (1884). ©Groninger Museum.

The Van Gogh had an insurance value of about $2.5 million, while the Hals was valued at $16.3 million (€16 million). The court said an insurance company would cover roughly half of the loss amount for the Hals.

According to reports, M. previously served a five-year jail sentence for stealing a 17th-century gilded silver church vessel from a museum in Gouda in 2012. In that case, he used explosives to blow open the museum door. Additional convictions cited in reports include the possession of a firearm and ammunition as well as over 10,000 MDMA pills.

The eight-year sentence was originally decided in a verdict from the Lelystad court in 2021, and was upheld on appeal. It did, however, reduce the sentence imposed against the thief in a separate case by a mere 50 days.

M.’s attorney did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The court said it intends to send a message about the serious nature of the crime. 

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