Two Van Gogh paintings stolen from Dutch museum

Sunday, December 8, 2002

AMSTERDAM, Netherlands -- Thieves broke into the Van Gogh Museum Saturday and made off with two works by the 19th-century master -- less than a week after a multimillion dollar gem heist from a Dutch diamond exhibition.

The value of the oils was not immediately known, but major works by Van Gogh sell for millions of dollars.

The second-story job was the second theft from the museum in 10 years. Security had been boosted after the first robbery of the Amsterdam collection, which holds the world's largest Van Gogh display -- more than 200 paintings and hundreds of drawings.

"This is the worst thing that can happen to any museum," said the director, John Leighton.

Alarms went off at 8 a.m., two hours before opening. By the time police got to the scene, the thieves had vanished, Leighton said.

Police were impressed. They had responded quickly and hoped to find the culprits still in the building.

Instead they discovered a 15-foot ladder leaning against the rear of the building. The thieves climbed to the second floor and broke a window, police spokeswoman Elly Florax said.

Leighton said the missing paintings were painted early in Vincent Van Gogh's career. They "have no market value since they were not for sale, but comparable paintings sold for several million dollars," he said.

"View of the Sea at Scheveningen," a small picture of a boat setting off into a stormy sea, was painted in two days in 1882. The thickly applied paint contains grains of sand blown onto the canvas from the beach where Van Gogh worked. It is one of his first major pieces.

"Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen," painted in 1884-85, shows the village church where Van Gogh's father served as pastor.

"The 'Reform Church' was emotionally important. He probably meant it as a souvenir for his mother," Leighton said.

Van Gogh, who suffered chronic depression, died in 1890 at age 37 from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Police turned away the public Saturday while investigators combed the building and curators rearranged the paintings to cover the blank spaces.

Last Monday, thieves raided a diamond exhibition at the Museon in The Hague, about 30 miles south of Amsterdam. Museum officials said millions of dollars worth of gems were taken.

The Van Gogh Museum opened in 1973 near the century-old Rijksmuseum. As well as the largest Van Gogh collection, it also presents the work of leading 19th-century impressionists.

In 1991, two robbers made off with some of its most famous Van Goghs, only to abandon the paintings less than an hour later outside a nearby railway station. All 20 paintings were recovered, including the final version of his priceless masterpiece "The Potato Eaters" as well as "Still Life With Sunflowers" and "Still Life With Irises."

Leighton refused to discuss security, including what measures were taken after the first break-in.

"There is a risk for every museum," Leighton said. "You can't have a Fort Knox situation. This is a public institution."

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