Art Theft is Optimism


Last month, on Vincent van Gogh’s 167th birthday, an anonymous thief stole an early van Gogh painting from a small museum in the Netherlands. The museum’s alarm went off at 3:15 a.m. The police found nothing but shards of glass. Only one painting, van Gogh’s “The Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in Spring,” was stolen.

I know this is not how art heists work, but I like the thought of the robber taking his van Gogh back to a flat in Amsterdam, maybe hanging it above his gold enameled fireplace. He can appreciate it, wine in hand, while he self isolates. I want for him to look at his prize, to squint to see it better, to hum in studious approval. The thief has a van Gogh now, and it is a van Gogh only he can access. I want him to admire his conquest.

Even if the thief hadn’t stolen “The Parsonage Garden,” after all, no one else could have looked at it. The Singer Laren has been empty for weeks. Its director shut down the building on March 13. The thief made his heist into a void — he went through the motions of art theft to obtain an item already robbed of its function. “Every piece of art that is stolen from a public museum is art that is stolen from society,” the director of the Groninger Museum — which owns the van Gogh — told the New York Times. But what is society supposed to do with a van Gogh right now? Do we mail it from house to house, wiping it down with Clorox in between? There’s something lonely about stealing an abandoned painting. The hyper-connectivity of the art world has been truncated. As art trade hibernates, heists feel passé.

Meanwhile, back at home, the many quarantiners who haven’t stolen a van Gogh recently are left pretending that facsimiles of art can match art itself. If you can’t have the real “Parsonage Garden,” the party line goes, virtual will do. While the internet has always offered a glut of art content, now it offers the only art content, and even organizations that preach the value of live media have capitulated. Instead of peddling human interaction, museums update their Instagrams. The world is ending. Internet art, like low-calorie ice cream or low-budget cover songs, will have to suffice.


So, if digital art is ascending and the physical art trade is on lockdown, why steal a van Gogh during a pandemic?

In order for this heist to make sense, two things must be true. First, the thief must believe that original paintings offer something the internet cannot. He must believe there is something in a painting’s scope, or its texture, or its image quality, that renders original art distinctive. He must believe that people go to museums for more than spectacle and overpriced sandwiches — that the museum industry is (or was) thriving because people like tangible artwork.

But second — and maybe more importantly — the thief must also assume a future where people can go to museums once again. Good robbers only steal things with worth, and paintings are worthless if no one can look at them. Art is difficult to resell after theft; a global lockdown only complicates a heist’s dynamics. In context, the van Gogh robbery is optimistic. The heist suggests the thief bet his life on a future post-apocalypse. He comitted a felony for a prize that will accrue value solely once the public can leave the house. A person steals a van Gogh during a pandemic if and only if he believes the pandemic will end.

I hope the robber is right, and that his van Gogh appreciates until he can sell it on a bustling black market connected by international flights and in-person handshakes. I hope even more, however, that the Singer Laren recovers the painting before the world reopens. The thief stole a strange, bleak image: The “spring” of the title is hard to find in “The Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in Spring.” Instead of flowers, van Gogh outlines a captivating, witch-ish figure staring straight out at the viewer. But the photo on the New York Times website is grainy and hard to judge. The painting’s greenery, just visible against the sepia backdrop, might be muted by its digitization.

The thief is lucky, and not just because he got to leave the house and go to a museum. I’m sure “The Parsonage Garden” looks brighter in person.

—Staff writer Iris M. Lewis can be reached at