A Van Gogh thief tells all
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AMSTERDAM, March 20 — “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 post-war art heists.
He did so in a 45-minute documentary that will show on Dutch television tomorrow, the same day the museum plans to return the two canvases — recovered in 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 organised 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 US$10 million (RM44 million) to about US$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 traumatising, 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 (RM1.66 million), divided equally between the thieves.
Imperiale’s defence 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.
The thieves spent the money over about six weeks — “Motorcycles, a Mercedes E320, clothes, jewellery for my girlfriend, a trip to New York,” Durham recalls.
Those purchases helped investigators, who were already wiretapping him, catch Durham. They went to his apartment, but he escaped by climbing up the side of the building — a skill that earned him the nickname “the Monkey”. They searched his house, but the paintings were long gone.
Durham fled to Spain, where the police arrested him in Marbella, a southern resort town, in December 2003. The next summer, Dutch forensic investigators confirmed a DNA match from the baseball cap he left behind during the museum robbery. Durham and Bieslijn were convicted that year.
Durham was released from prison in 2006, but still owed €350,000 in fines; he has paid about €60,000. He returned to prison after a failed bank robbery. In 2013, he approached the museum and, although he still insisted he was innocent, offered to help retrieve the works. The museum rejected his offer because he suggested that they buy them back.
In 2015, he met documentary filmmaker Vincent Verweij through a mutual friend. Durham told Verweij that he wanted to help find the paintings so that he could clear his debt to the museum and abandon a life of crime. But he still maintained his innocence.
“I told him frankly that I didn’t believe him,” Verweij recalled in an interview. “One day he sent me a WhatsApp message and asked me to meet him in a cafe, and he admitted that he’d told me a lie and that he did the break-in.”
Verweij began filming in earnest. Along the way he learned about a big break in the case: Imperiale had sent a letter on August 29, 2016, to Vincenza Marra, a public prosecutor in Naples, informing them that he had the paintings.
In a phone interview, Marra said the letter merely confirmed a “much-whispered-about” rumour that investigators had already begun looking into.
“I know that if we hadn’t handed the paintings over to the Dutch authorities, they never would have found them,” she added dryly.
Willem Nijkerk, a Dutch prosecutor, credited the Italian police with solving the case, and noted that Durham played no role in the recovery of the paintings.
Last September, Italian investigators raided Imperiale’s mother’s home near Naples, where the works were wrapped in cloth and tucked away in a hidden wall space next to the kitchen. The recovery of the works made global headlines. Italian investigators also seized about €20 million in other assets, including farmland, villas and apartments linked to Imperiale and an associate, prosecutors said at the time.
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.”
Bakker was surprised that the works seemed in relatively good condition.
“When I saw the damage in the lower left corner of one of the paintings, it was substantial, but I looked at the rest and realised it was the only big damage, and I was very relieved to see that,” she said of the seascape. “It was really like being in some weird movie, with all these police officers around me and this strange Mafia story they were telling me.”
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 will be restored to the walls of the Van Gogh Museum on Monday.
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 behaviour from someone who shows remorse.”
Verweij acknowledged the tricky ethics of giving Durham a platform in the documentary.
“The interesting thing is that you never see documentaries or articles about art theft from the perspective of the thief,” Verweij said. “It’s always the experts, the museum people, the prosecutors, but never the ones who actually do it, and I think that’s a unique perspective. It’s not meant to be a glorification of this guy.” — The New York Times