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How 20 Stolen Van Gogh Paintings Were Recovered 35 Minutes After a Heist

It was an inside job.

Van Gogh’s “The Potato Eaters,” one of the works that was stolen. (Photo: Public domain)

Officials said Friday that two Van Gogh paintings—stolen in 2002 in a brazen robbery at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam—were recovered in Italy, where they had apparently been in the hands of the Italian mafia. 

The paintings’ recovery wraps up one of the longer art theft cases in the world, though it was nothing compared to a different robbery at the same museum, which took place in 1991, when 20 carefully-chosen paintings were recovered in an abandoned car 35 minutes after being stolen. 

Four men were later arrested and convicted for that robbery, including a security guard, in what officials said was apparently an inside job. 

But for all of its planning—one bandit hid in a restroom toilet stall at the Van Gogh Museum for hours—the theft was ultimately undone by a flat tire

It began around 3 a.m. on April 14, 1991, when one thief emerged from the bathroom wearing a ski mask and wielding a gun. He then approached two security guards on duty, locking one in a storeroom (who was later revealed to be an accomplice) and forcing the other two to open the front door and disable the museum’s security systems. 

After another thief entered, they carefully scanned the museum for 45 minutes deciding what to take, ultimately emerging with a haul of art, the most famous of which was “The Potato Eaters,” Van Gogh’s depiction of rural Dutch poverty. 

They left the Van Gogh Museum in one of the guard’s cars and made it as far as the Amsterdam Amstel railway station. A planned rendezvous with a different car was thwarted when that car got a flat tire, so they abandoned the first car—and the paintings inside—and fled.

Just three months later, four men were in handcuffs, all Dutch nationals, who would each spend years in prison. The officials suspected the perpetrators were working on the orders of higher authorities, but never arrested anyone else in the crime. 

Despite the recovery of those paintings, and the pair on Friday, most lost art is never found. But art stolen from Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum has a pretty good track record of eventually turning up.