A van Gogh thief tells all

In Photo: A self-portrait of Dutch post-impressionist painter Vincent van Gogh, whose works can fetch from $10 million to $70 million at auction.

By Nina Siegal / New York Times News Service

AMSTERDAM—“Some people are born teachers. Some people are born footballers. I’m a born burglar.” So says Octave Durham, who stole two priceless Vincent van Gogh paintings on the evening of December 7, 2002.

More than 14 years after he and an accomplice clambered onto the roof of the Van Gogh Museum here, broke a window with a sledgehammer and lifted the canvases off the wall, Durham has finally come clean about his involvement in one of the most infamous postwar art heists.

He did so in a 45-minute documentary that aired on Dutch television last Tuesday, March 21, the same day the museum returned the two canvases—recovered last September from the home of an Italian mobster’s mother—to public view.

The confession has no legal impact for Durham, who was convicted in 2004 and served just over 25 months in prison, but it sheds light on the paintings’ tortuous journey and ultimate rescue, and on the intersection of art theft and organized crime.

“The heist took about three minutes and 40 seconds,” Durham says in the documentary. “When I was done, the police were there, and I was passing by with my getaway car. Took my ski mask off, window down, and I was looking at them.”

He adds: “I could hear them on my police scanner. They didn’t know it was me.”

Durham, in details that he shares for the first time, after years of claiming innocence, brags of doing “bank jobs, safety deposit and more spectacular jobs than this”. He says he targeted the museum not because of any interest in art but simply because he could. “That’s the eye of a burglar,” he boasts.

The works are of inestimable value because they have never been to market: View of the Sea at Scheveningen (1882) is one of only two seascapes van Gogh painted during his years in the Netherlands, and Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen (1882-84), showing the church where the artist’s father was a pastor, was a gift to the artist’s mother.

(Prices for van Gogh landscape paintings at auction range from about $10 million to about $70 million.)

But Durham did not know the historical background of the paintings. He said the paintings were the smallest ones in the gallery he targeted, and closest to the hole through which he entered. He stuffed them into a bag, and escaped by sliding down a rope he and his accomplice had put in place. When he hit the ground, he came down so hard that he smashed the seascape, chipping the paint. He left behind a black baseball cap. A security guard called the police, but she was not permitted to use force to try to stop the burglars.

“It was really a terrible day,” Nienke Bakker, a curator at the Van Gogh Museum, recalled in an interview with The New York Times. “A burglary or robbery is always traumatizing, but when it’s a museum and it’s art that belongs to the whole community, and the whole world, really, and it was stolen in such a brutal way, that was really a shock.”

When he returned home, Durham said, he removed the frames and plexiglass covers from the paintings. He tossed paint chips from the seascape into a toilet. Later, he dumped the frames in a canal.

Durham could not sell the canvases on the open market, but he put out the word in the underworld. At one point, he said, he met with Cor van Hout, who was convicted in the 1983 kidnapping of  beer magnate Alfred H. Heineken.

Van Hout agreed to buy the paintings, but was killed on the day of the planned sale.

Later, Durham and his accomplice, Henk Bieslijn, contacted an Italian mobster, Raffaele Imperiale, who at the time sold marijuana out of a “coffee shop” in Amsterdam. He agreed to buy the two paintings in March 2003 for around €350,000 (roughly $380,000), divided equally between the thieves.

Imperiale’s defense lawyers, Maurizio Frizzi and Giovanni Ricci in Genoa, Italy, confirmed that Imperiale bought the paintings even though he knew they were stolen, because “he is fond of art” and they were “a good bargain”.

He sent them to Italy within two weeks, and never displayed them.

Bakker, the Van Gogh Museum curator, recalls receiving a call in late September asking her to

travel to Naples the next day. She wasn’t given details, but she had her suspicions. She grabbed her files on the paintings.

“When I was on the plane, I remember thinking: I hope they’ve been preserved well and people haven’t taken them off the stretchers,” she recalls. At the Naples police station, members of the Guardia di Finanza, the Italian police agency for financial crimes, took her to a room where the paintings had been placed on blue-and-white cloth on a table.

“I immediately thought and knew that these were the paintings from our museum,” she said. “But I took another few minutes to convince myself. They were all waiting and standing for me to say the words. I did say them, and then there were cheers.”

After they were recovered, with much fanfare in Italy, the works were first exhibited for three weeks in February at the National Museum of Capodimonte in Naples, and were restored to the walls of the Van Gogh Museum on March 20.

Imperiale left the Netherlands for Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, in 2013 or 2014. In writing to the prosecutor, he may have hoped for leniency, but in January he was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Italian authorities are seeking his extradition. His lawyers said that he was not sure if he would return to Italy.

“He is homesick for his parents, but in Dubai he’s a free man,” Imperiale’s lawyers said through an interpreter in a telephone interview.

The Van Gogh Museum remains furious at Durham and did not cooperate with the documentary, which was funded by the Dutch national broadcaster KRO-NCRV. (Durham, who lives in Amsterdam and works mostly as a driver and an assistant for his daughter, a successful musician, was not paid for his participation, the filmmaker said.)

“The last 14 years have been a roller coaster of hope, disappointment and agony,” the museum’s director, Axel Rueger, said in an interview. “All the time this man is sitting on this information. He knew exactly what he had done, and he never breathed a word. To us it feels as if he is seeking the limelight.”

He added: “The museum is the victim in this case, and I would expect very different behavior from someone who shows remorse.”

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