A Van Gogh painting stolen from a Dutch museum in March 2020 is back in safe hands after a three-and-a-half-year quest to recover it.
Dutch art detective Arthur Brand said he had been handed the 139-year-old painting in a pillow and an Ikea bag by a man who came to his front door.
“I did this in complete co-ordination with Dutch police and we knew this guy wasn’t involved in the theft,” he said.
In 2021, a career criminal was jailed for eight years over the incident.
But by then the painting, worth several million euros, had already changed hands.
The Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in Spring was initially stolen from the Dutch town of Laren, to the south-east of Amsterdam. The thief smashed through two glass doors at the Singer museum with a sledgehammer, at the start of the coronavirus lockdown.
It had been on loan from a museum in the north-eastern city of Groningen which has hailed the work’s recovery as “wonderful news”.
The French-born thief, 59-year-old Nils M, who lived a short distance away from Laren, was convicted of stealing the work as well as a Frans Hals painting a few months later from a museum in Leerdam, near Utrecht. His DNA was found at both crime scenes.
According to communications intercepted by police, the Van Gogh painting from 1884, also known as Spring Garden, had been acquired by a crime group intending to use it in exchange for shorter jail terms.
Mr Brand, who has collaborated with Dutch police on the hunt for the work, told the BBC that they knew it would pass from one group to another in the criminal underworld, as nobody would want to touch it.
Eventually, he was approached by a man in Amsterdam who offered to return it in exchange for complete confidentiality, partly because it had become a headache to keep holding on to the painting.
“I was at a birthday party and he was waiting under a tree and he explained to me why he wanted to do this,” Mr Brand told the BBC.
The painting was then handed over to him at his home on Monday afternoon, while the director of the Groninger museum was waiting on the street corner in a bar to authenticate the work.
It was protected by a pillow which was covered with blood, he added, as the man had cut a finger while retrieving it.
A spokesman for the Dutch police arts crime unit has confirmed that the recovered painting is authentic and Andreas Blühm, the head of the Groninger museum, has spoken of his delight at its safe return.
“In recent years I began to wonder: will I still be around to see it [return]?… I saw immediately it was genuine. It’s slightly damaged but it can be repaired,” he told De Telegraaf website.