Broken frame and traces of DNA lead to arrest of van Gogh theft

Nils M. was not a novice art thief. But prosecutors say he left DNA evidence on a broken picture frame in one museum and a sturdy strap...


Nils M. was not a novice art thief. But prosecutors say he left DNA evidence on a broken picture frame in one museum and a sturdy strap in another that helped Dutch investigators identify him as the man who stole van Gogh paintings and Frans Hals in two daring heists.

A match in their database led them to the 59-year-old accused who had previously served a five-year prison sentence for stealing a 17th-century gilt-silver monstrance, or church vase, from a Gouda museum in 2012.

During this theft, Nils M. – who is identified without his full last name due to Dutch privacy laws – used explosives to open the door to the museum.

In the most recent thefts, prosecutors are seeking an eight-year prison sentence for what they have called “exceptional crimes” committed with an as-yet-unidentified partner. The paintings – the van Gogh had an insured value of 2.5 million euros, or approximately $ 2.9 million, and the Hals was valued between 10 and 15 million euros, or 11.7 million to 17 , $ 6 million – has not been recovered.

A panel of three judges is expected to rule on the case on Friday.

“Breaking into a museum and taking paintings by world famous artists, pieces that belong to our cultural heritage, which are irreplaceable”, was “totally unacceptable”, said the prosecutor in the case, GabriĆ«lle Hoppenbrouwers, in court earlier this month, according to a copy of the indictment.

At the court hearing in Lelystad, the defendant denied the charges. “He said he didn’t steal those paintings and had nothing to do with it,” his lawyer, Renske van Zanden, said in an interview.

But prosecutors in the central Netherlands region said DNA evidence from the photo frame and strap, which was likely used on the getaway, points to him.

Van Gogh’s painting, “The Rectory Garden at Nuenen in Spring”, from 1884, was part of a temporary exhibition at the Singer Laren Museum, on loan from the Groninger Museum, Groningen.

Security camera images of last year’s robbery showed a man using a sledgehammer to smash two glass doors in order to enter the museum. He left with the painting under his arm.

Prosecutors said the painting’s frame was left in pieces in the parking lot. Some of those pieces bore traces of the suspect’s DNA, they said.

Hals’ painting, “Two Laughing Boys with a Mug of Beer,” from the 17th century, was stolen five months later, in August 2020, from a small museum, Hofje van Mevrouw van Aerden Museum, in Leerdam. This flight attracted special attention because it was the third time that the painting had been stolen from the same small museum. (It was previously stolen in 2011 and 1988, but recovered both times.)

The back door had been smashed and the police found a orange tension strap attached to a flag pole in the garden outside the museum which prosecutors say was likely used to lower the Hals or the thief along a 10-foot wall near a waiting scooter. A security camera showed two people riding away on scooters. The passenger was carrying something square that looked like a small painting.

An extendable ladder was also discovered two weeks before the theft at Leerdam, submerged in a body of water near the base of the museum’s garden wall that prosecutors suspect may have been hidden there by burglars to climb the wall . A passer-by noticed the ladder, however, and moved it, possibly thwarting part of their plan, investigators said.

Prosecutors emphasized the strength of the DNA evidence at each of the scenes. But they said there were other compelling reasons to suggest that both thefts were committed by the same man. Both thefts took place shortly after 3 a.m., involving heavy force breaking into museums and involving an accomplice who helped the thief escape on a scooter, they said. Investigators have not identified any accomplices.

The Leerdam Museum is part of a hospice for single women which also displays the collection of its 18th century founder. It is largely run by volunteers who maintain the Hofje and its garden. Prosecutors said a trampled zucchini plant helped investigators determine where the thief climbed the wall in the garden.

The defendant, Nils M., was arrested in April at his home in Baarn, a small town near Laren. A gun and ammunition were found during a search of his home, along with more than 10,000 ecstasy pills, prosecutors said.

Responding to charges in court earlier this month, Nils M., who works in a garage where he repairs cars, said he sometimes uses the kind of strap found in Leerdam when doing repairs, which could explain the presence of his DNA on the strap. But he didn’t know how the strap got to Leerdam, his lawyer Ms van Zanden said.

“He said he often uses straps, for example when picking up car parts,” she explained in an email. “He also said that the straps were sometimes overlooked. “

Ms van Zanden argued that Laren’s DNA evidence was inconclusive, in part because there were matches to other people in the photo frame. She said her client was taller than the man shown in Laren’s footage, and said the way the thief handled the hammer on the video suggested he was left-handed, while her client was right-handed.

The theft of works of art by the two great Dutch artists in the space of a few months has given rise to many theories as to the reasons for their theft. In court, Ms Hoppenbrouwers said prosecutors believed the defendant had sold or donated the paintings, and that they were now in the criminal world.

In the indictment, she suggested some reasons why famous works of art remain popular among thieves, even though they cannot be easily sold or displayed publicly. Such masterpieces can take place in the underworld, investigators believe, because they can be used to demand ransoms from the insurance companies that insure them and, in some cases, can be used in negotiations to obtain reduced prison sentences.

The works could also be used as collateral in drug trafficking, she said.

Arthur Brand, a private art detective who followed the two cases, said he believed there was a demand for artwork from the Dutch underworld. Those accused of drug-related offenses believe that a stolen work of art could potentially be turned over to authorities in exchange for a lesser sentence, he said.

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Newsrust - US Top News: Broken frame and traces of DNA lead to arrest of van Gogh theft
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