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Tuesday, May 04, 2021

Stolen Art Watch, Arthur Brand Between Art & Cash book Chapter by Pieter van Os & Arjen Ribbens


This is a direct translation from an impeccable Dutch source who kindly translated the whole chapter.

This chapter is the Starting Gun being fired and moving forward we will see the uncovering of a huge conspiracy that has been going on for many years.

The main players are revealed thus far include:

Arthur Brand, 

Nils M, 

Octave Durham, 

Dutch Art Cop Richard Bronswijk, 

Peter Roy Kok, Lawyer Christian Floxstra, 

William "Bill" Veres,

Dick Ellis, 

Robert Read, Hiscox Insurers, 

& most tragically Scotland Yard Art & Antiques squad, (except Detective Sophie Hayes, possibly Detective Ray Swan), looking the other way whilst many UK laws have been broken by Arthur Brand, Dick Ellis, Hiscox insurers Robert Read, William "Bill" Veres and others.

The cases where UK laws, 1968 Theft Act, 2002 Proceeds of Crime Act have been broken.

Tamara de Lempicka painting-fee paid of 10% to Dick Ellis plus bonus when it was sold for $10million

Savador Dali painting-fee of 10% paid to Dick Ellis, plus bonus when it was sold for $2million

Saudi Sheikh Picasso-fee of $450,000 paid to Dick Ellis-$600,000 paid to handlers of Picasso via Arthur Brand

Oscar Wilde ring- reward of £3,500 paid to Arthur Brand-passed to William Veres & George Crump

Iranian book of Poems- reward of 50,000 Euros paid to Arthur Brand-passed to William Bill Veres to help pay his legal fees on his smuggling charges in Italy and spain

The above cases all appear on film in two series of the Arthur Brand TV series Kunstdetective.


The Art Detective – Arthur Brand

(Or: ‘Something as silly as a painting’)

Arthur has been arrested. With this announcement a sister of one of us called. Arthur W. was her friend, a stockbroker from Amsterdam. It was September 1993 and he was "in disability" in a cell in Terneuzen, an expression we both didn’t know. It meant, the sister explained, that Arthur wasn’t allowed contact with anyone except his lawyer. 

Couldn’t her dear brother, the journalist, find out what the hell was going on? 

A few hours later the Zeeland-correspondent of NRC Handelsblad called him back. ‘2,920 kilos of Moroccan hash,’ she said. The prohibited substances – with a street value of 29 million guilders - had been hidden in a container filled with scrap metal, unloaded in the port of Antwerp.

Four more men had been arrested, not only Arthur. One of these men was hash dealer Kees Houtman. Later he became quite famous for the way he died. In broad daylight he was killed on the sidewalk in front of his house. That murder would play an important role in the trial of the most famous criminal in the Netherlands, Willem Holleeder.

And Arthur? Well, a wanton, happy-go-lucky guy. But a drugs criminal? The people who knew him were bewildered. The guy worked as an options dealer, on the stock exchange, was in his early thirties, didn't smoke, didn't drink, enjoyed sports, and always had his white shirts washed and ironed by a dry cleaner. He was and behaved like a fraternity guy, at an age when something like this can no longer count on much appreciation in established circles. Example? He had mounted a stick on the dashboard of his Renault 5 Turbo for the fines. "Come on, Grim Mustache," he said when he was kicked off for speeding again.

A few months later, the prosecution demanded a total of 16 years in prison against the five men. The judge came up with significantly lower sentences. The public prosecutor announced he would appeal on behave of the people.

But it wouldn’t happen. A month after the trial, Vincent Kraal, the main suspect's lawyer, came up with a proposal. His client, hash dealer Kees Houtman, had ordered a photo from the Bijlmer prison were he stayed, with two paintings and a current morning newspaper. The two paintings were by Van Gogh. They had been stolen three years earlier from the Noordbrabants Museum.

Lawyer Kraal announced in the media that his client could return the paintings. The desired consideration: no appeal.

Impossible, the public prosecutor immediately announced publicly: ‘The prosecution (and/or Ministry of Justice) will not be blackmailed.’ But the attorney general at the court appeals thought otherwise, and in March 1994, four days before the case would go before a judge again, Kraal delivered the stolen Van Goghs to the public prosecutor's office in The Hague. Kraal wouldn’t say where he had picked them up. He did say that the owner "thought it was not right that they hung on his wall, and not in the museum".

So no appeal against Houtman and his four co-defendants. Officially, no agreement had been reached. Ministry of Justice and the prosecutor’s office denied that the Van Goghs had played a role in the decision to drop the plan to appeal. The spokesperson (of the Ministry of Justice): ‘We don't deal. The fact that we are not going to appeal [in this case] is a matter of efficiency. "

Houtman and his men were released immediately after the transfer of the Van Goghs.

A quarter of a century later, lawyer Kraal says [to us] that everything went according to agreement. Kraal prefers not to talk about it anymore, but after a bit of hanging and strangling, he comes up with the line: "The deal with the Ministry was that I would say that no deal was ever struck."

Eight years after the release of Arthur-the-brother-in-law, on an early December morning, two men set a ladder in a planter against an outside wall of the Van Gogh Museum on the Potterstraat in Amsterdam. They climbed the ladder at lightning speed. Once on the roof, they ran to a window, cut a modest hole in it with a sledgehammer whose handle was painted black. They squeezed through the hole and tore two Van Goghs off the wall: Seascape at Scheveningen and The Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen. They rushed back, through the same hole, and with a rope they left the museum building. The heist was over in a matter of minutes.

Thanks to a tip from an informant, the police knew which two men to follow and, a year later, both burglars were arrested. In the court case that followed, the prosecution had an impressive array of evidence: bugged phone calls; large expenditure of money. At the house of one of the suspects there were even sledgehammers been found with black painted wooden handles. In addition, the men had paid a price for their speed: a burglar had dropped his cap. It turned out to contain DNA traces from Octave Durham.

All this evidence and some tapped phone calls put the title of a 2018 book about this Durham into perspective: Master Thief 

Thief, okay, but "master"?

More interesting for the art of art robbery and the work of art detectives is the place where both Van Goghs were eventually recovered. In Italy, in the parental home of the Italian drug lord Raffaele Imperiale, on the coast just below Naples.

Octave Durham, the master thief, had initially wanted to sell the paintings to Cornelis van Hout, one of Freddy Heineken's kidnappers and his driver. Van Hout paid a good sum for it, says Durham. But one day before the delivery of the paintings, Van Hout was liquidated in the Dorpsstraat in Amstelveen, a murder probably/possibly commissioned by Willem Holleeder, his brother-in-law.

Durham had to look for a new buyer. He found it in the Italian Raffaele Imperiale. This Neapolitan drug lord had possessions all over the world, including a coffee shop in Amsterdam. Durham knew people from his entourage. They paid Durham 300,000 euros for both Van Goghs. That is quite a lot of money for two paintings that you can never sell above ground. At least, that is what you would think. But thirteen years later, it turned out to be a rational purchase. Raffaele had nowhere to go in those days. Italian police seized dozens of his homes and issued an international search warrant. The Italian faced 20 years in prison and, from Dubai, started negotiations with the Italian Public Prosecution Service about his surrender and the prison sentence the prosecutors demanded. He used the two Van Goghs as a kind of chance cards. He would tell where to find the two paintings in exchange for a halving of the sentence. The OM was interested.

Upon entering the home of Imperiale's parents, investigative authorities immediately knew where to go. They came out again with the two Van Goghs. The paintings then went to Amsterdam and they have been hanging in the auditorium for quite some time now.

Raffaele's deal with the Italian Public Prosecution Service should have been kept a secret, of course, but the judge wouldn’t have any of it. In the criminal trial against Raffael, everything came in the open, because the judge did not want to halve the sentence - he made a point of it. Ultimately, Imperiale would not receive a twenty years, but an eighteen years prison sentence. Not bad either: for each Van Gogh he received a one-year reduction in his sentence.

You could say it cost the Italian criminal multimillionaire 300,000 euros to get two years off his prison sentence. A form of healing/fencing rewarded by the authorities. Imperiale has, by the way, not yet served a day of this sentence, because the conviction was in absentia. Dubai never extradited Raffaele. He is still there.

Both cases, Houtman's and Imperiale's, spread like wildfire through the underworld. The message was clear: get hold of precious stolen art in case you ever get caught. Call it nest eggs. 

That running fire appeared in the millions of encrypted messages that the Dutch police managed to decipher in the spring of 2020, after hacking the crypto telephone provider Encrochat. Among the reports about crystal meth laboratories and torture chambers in Brabant, the police read reports about the desire for expensive works of art. Strikingly popular artist among the criminals: Vincent van Gogh.

After the decoding of the text-messages, the longing for expensive paintings among criminals only increased, tells the police. The "Operation Encrochat" had created an enormous fear for convictions among them and thus reinforced the thought that it is was wise to possess a stolen art object. The desire to negotiate with the Public Prosecution about a reduction in sentence would, for example, have inspired Peter Roy K. from Amersfoort to buy a Van Gogh, while [he was] already in prison. The work, an early Van Gogh of the vicarage garden in Nuenen (1884), was stolen from the Singer Museum in Laren at the end of March 2020. Peter Roy K. is suspected of large-scale cocaine trafficking. He appears to have paid 400,000 euros for a painting that can never be sold above ground.

The same thing with the Frans Hals, who in August of 2020 disappeared for the third time (hello?) from the Hofje van Mevrouw Van Aerden, a small museum in Leerdam. It is said to have been stolen on behalf of criminals hoping for a reduced sentence.

At least, that's what Arthur Brand has told in a broadcast of his TV-series The Art Detective. This Arthur is a different Arthur from the derailed fraternity brat who walked into one of our families and entered the marihuana/hasj business. Arthur Brand is a blond man in his fifties who is considered to be the man in the Netherlands who takes stolen art and antiques out of criminal hands to return the objects to the rightful owners - especially in cases that the police didn’t have on their radar anymore.

People listen to Brand when it comes to stolen art. The art detective gives lectures in theaters, he performs in all kinds of media as a connoisseur of art theft, and a major producer in Hollywood is planning to make a book he wrote into a film. Brand has a ‘unique position’, as the voice-over of his tv-series says in the intro/lead of each episode, because ‘he maintains good contacts with the police as well as with the underworld’.

Because of those contacts with criminals, Brand is often asked about their motives. The same voice-over says, voiced by actor Huub Stapel: ‘Literally day and night, Brand invests in his contacts with the underworld. Year in, year out. They know him and they know their secrets are safe with him.’

This Arthur told the Dutch public that in the two major art burglaries of 2020 (Leerdam and Laren) the hope of a reduced sentence was the motive of the thieves, or at least of the criminals who bought the stolen works underhand/clandestinely. Brand went on to say that the criminals will absolutely not get a reduced sentence, because the Public Prosecution ‘wil not be so stupid, of course’ to make yeet another deal after the one they once made with Houtman. Everyone understands that something like that provokes even more theft.

So the question is: how is stolen art being recovered if a deal with the prosecution is impossible? How does an art detective like Brand manages that, at times?  

In all sorts of interviews - Brand gives quite a few - he explains that he manages to convince thieves that the best thing is to give the art to him, after which he delivers it to the last rightful owner. He does this with the knowledge and therefore approval of the police. What's the benefit to the thieves? If they give the stolen art to Brand, they will stay out of trouble. Brand, from one such interview: ‘Very often it’s about looted art that has already been passed from hand to hand ten times in the underworld, as collateral (for loans). Some bad guys don't even know it's about stolen work. These are folks who can’t often distinguish a child's drawing from a Rembrandt. If you can help them getting rid of a problem, they'll respect you. Their problem is: they don’t want to be arrested, but they also don’t want to burn the work, because they will get an even higher punishment for (doing) that.’

Is that how Brand is reclaiming art? Is that the art detective's method?

At his apartment in Amsterdam, he does say so. The first two years it’s up to the police; at that stage of the game the police tries to recover the loot and catch the thieves. ‘When such an investigation comes to nothing,’ Brand says, ‘then one knows that the art is usually no longer with the thieves. From that moment on it is mainly about recovering the art, not about the people who are in possession of it. So I bring the artwork back without specifying the people who gave it to me. And always after consultation with the police.’

Brand: ‘It is important that I can put people under pressure. I say: I know you have that painting. Watch out, the police are on your heels, and you will be prosecuted for healing/fencing. Or you give it to me. Than you don’t have to carry around (the burden of having) the painting in your possession and the police investigation will stop. And bad guys really don't want to be punished for something as silly as a painting.’

The question is: does Brand tell the whole story? We have been filing art theft reports in the newspaper for years and since we were constantly looking for insiders who can tell something about the motives of burglars for a follow-up report or an analysis, we claim/estimate Brand is downplaying an important reason for art heists. Ransom. Stealing art is in many ways like kidnapping people. As a criminal, you first provide proof that you are in possession of the stolen artwork (photo with a recent newspaper), then you discuss ransom with the owner (often an insurance company) and because society considers kidnapped people and art more important than avenging the crime of the act of bringing the culprits/crooks to justice,  the criminal will receive money when he or she returns the stolen goods, reasonably intact. As a criminal, you prefer to do this through an intermediary you trust, not through the police. And isn’t it at that stage that the art detective comes to she scene? In other words: isn’t he more a broker between the upper and the underworld, than an ‘art detective’?

               We spoke to an former policeman who had been involved in organized crime for many years and who, after leaving the force as a detective, also worked for several years in art security. He says it univocally: “Thieves never do anything for nothing. Just handing back art without a reward? Fantasyland. They might as well set it on fire."

               Lynda Albertson, the director of ARCA, the Association of Research in Crimes of Art, agrees with the police officer, albeit more cautiously: “Rewards encourage people who live and work in the gray area of ​​art crime. They are more likely to do something when they are compensated.” In order not to provoke theft, she says, “the rule of thumb is that rewards should be small, often 5 to 10 percent of the value of the stolen artwork." Or rather, we learn from insurers, 5 to 10 percent of the insured value of the stolen work. This is far from the same as the value that a work has on the art market after it has disappeared for years. And believe it or not, even an art robbery can increase the importance and thus value of a work of art.


Insurers only want to talk to us on the condition of anonymity. That was to be expected. When it comes to stolen art, their work is controversial. Years ago, after the second time the Museum Hofje van Mevrouw Van Aerden in Leerdam was robbed of a Frans Hals, the man who was once responsible for the security of the Rijksmuseum, Ton Cremers, came to the conclusion that it would be wise not to insure paintings anymore, none of them, 'no matter how valuable they are'. Because: ‘Insurers do business with thieves, or with all kinds of intermediaries. Therefore. They always deny it, or call it differently. But they do. No security system can prevent such an incentive.’

His conclusion did not come out of thin air. After the first burglary in Leerdam, in the early nineties, 500,000 guilders (sosm 230.000 euro’s) had gone to the people who returned the stolen works. The insurer, who paid out the money, spoke of ‘custody costs’ (of, ‘the cost of taking care of the paintings.’)

Brand does not agree: thieves do not steal to get money from the insurer.

On a grey November day, he stands by the open window in his apartment. He tells us passionately that in the run-up to this interview, he checked again how things went in the cases in which he was involved. ‘More than 40 successful cases that I handled and not once was money from the insurer the motive of the thieves. And stealing art to collect tip money twenty years later? Criminals do not work with such a time span. The idea itself is nonsense. Tip money does not provoke/create theft.’

Brand does not deny that people sometimes pay to return stolen art. But those, he claims, are never the people who stole the art. ‘And the police always checks whether the people who come up with the stolen art were not involved in the robbery or the handling of the crime. Payment can only be made if it turns out that this is not the case.’

But when is recovering actually fencing/healing? And when is it not? There is quite a bit of space between the words of Brand and other insiders we speak, and a former Dutch police officer, a museum security chief and two art insurers. There is too much room for us to resign directly to Brand's claim that big money is not necessary to get back stolen masterpieces. So we look further to understand the role of middlemen and tip or ransom. Because Brand is of course not the only one who does this work. There are more art detectives, internationally operating lawyers such as Chris Marinello, ex-military Julian Radcliffe of the Art Loss Register (remember the Schoonhoven), former British police officers Dick Ellis and Charles Hill (died February 2021) and a few more men (especially men) who extract art from criminal hands.

The group reacts divided, when we speak to them, but also earlier days, in all kinds of interviews. In general you could say that former police officers claim that stolen art will not return without serious payments to criminals or their accomplices. Art detectives like Marinello, on the other hand, say what Brand says: you can do without payments. Marinello says that he is even against payments to criminals in/on principle. He claims he left his previous employer, the Art Loss Register, for this very reason. His boss at the time, Julian Radcliffe, was said to be too close to some Serbian serious criminals. He paid for stolen art on behalf of duped owners and received money for his mediation. Radcliffe is indeed in the former police-officers’ camp: art recovery is almost not to be done without payments. At a symposium in Amsterdam Radcliffe spoke about the practice of negotiating stolen art. He called it ‘a gray area’ and ‘a legal twilight zone’ - and yes, these areas and zones beg for discussion. Yet this discussion does not take place often, at least not publicly. That is understandable, since none of the protagonists have an interest in such a public debate: not the police, not the intermediaries, not the criminals and not even the duped museum directors or collectors. Anyone who wants his art back is willing to pay. But when payments become known, they provoke new thefts. 

Nevertheless, the question whether it is allowed to pay to recover stolen art, did occasionally arise, even in the public debate, especially after Serbian criminals received three million British pounds to hand over two paintings by the romantic painter William Turner. This case lead the director of the Tate Gallery to wonder: when is a ransom reasonably called ‘tip money’, a reward for useful information? The aforementioned Charley Hill, who worked in the past for the British Art and Antiques Squad, said in the public debate that followed that ‘we’, in ‘our civilized global society’ must make exceptions to the premise that crime should never pay. After all, there is a ‘duty to be a keeper, in the Biblical sense, of anything that needs protection.’ According to Hill, payments must be, however, be within ‘the realm of the reasonable and the legal.’

Let’s first look at what is ‘reasonable’. Hill thought three million pounds for the Turner-paintings too much. That was indeed above tot five to ten percent of the insured value. For Chris Marinello, the art detective from England who says he is against payments to criminals out of principle, can of course not comments on the amount of the payments. We do, however, get to see several email messages from him, in which he is complaining about the amounts - they would be too low. In one of those emails he complains that an insurance company did not pay the ten percent of the insurance value of the art (22 million dollars) that he, with his company Art Recovery International, helped to recover, in an operation in which money obviously/certainly had gone into the hands of criminals. 

Let’s now consider what is ‘within the realm of legality’, that Hill speaks of. That is problematic. Because paying for stolen goods is in principle never legal. Not in England, not in the Netherlands, in almost no country. That's why Brand and all art detectives are on slippery ice. Little is allowed by law in the field of healing/fencing (profiting from stolen goods). Even someone who helps the healer/fencer is complicit in fencing/healing. Criminal attorney Michiel Pestman, with whom we go through the legal sides of healing/fencing, says therefore: ‘It wouldn’t surprise me if prosecutors already started a criminal investigation into Brand.’

But Pestman, who has only had to deal with art theft in a few cases, does not know what we discovered, on a beautiful autumn day in Zoetermeer. The police in charge of tracing stolen art are very content with Brand and what he does. He is the only art detective in the Netherlands with whom they enjoy to cooperate. 

Richard Bronswijk is a cheerful, warm-hearted man in his fifties with bouncy gray hair combed in a middle part. In a bulky concrete building in Zoetermeer he leads the Art and Antiques Team of the Dutch police. He explains what the agents of this small team do and, above all, what they cannot do, due to lack of manpower. With 2.7 FTE’s, they register all art that is stolen in the Netherlands, from antique clocks to family portraits, coins and paintings. In addition, he and his employees scour the sites of auction houses and answer questions from dealers and auction houses that come across suspicious objects. There is barely ‘capacity’ for actual research, as Bronswijk calls it. ‘That is why, of course, it is fantastic that someone like Arthur Brand comes to us with things that we did not even know were stolen anymore. Crimes that are long overdue but are getting back on track thanks to Arthur.’

Bronswijk: ‘Moreover, Brand can do things that we cannot. If someone tells us about stolen art, I have to make an official report. Then I have to give names, which is of course risky for the people who come to me. That is also why I sometimes say to Arthur: don't tell me a name, because I have to do something with that name. He doesn’t. That means he can sometimes track down stolen art more effectively than we can.’

Bronswijk gets along well with Brand. They regularly call and occasionally perform together in seminars on art theft and museum security. They share the belief that tracking down stolen art is more important than pursuing the thieves of the art works. The thieves are usually out already of the picture for a long time when a tip comes in about stolen art, or when Brand hears something among his criminal contacts. Bronswijk: ‘The people who ended up with the stolen art can only be prosecuted for healing/fencing. As punishment, I always say a little disrespectfully, they will have to sweep a petting zoo for 180 hours, at the most. Who benefits from that?’

The question lingers: wouldn't art theft become too attractive when the deterrent effect of punishment and police investigation disappears? Bronswijk doesn’t think so, if only because the deterrent effect is hardly in effect now. He is not happy with that (present situation), it has to be different, but that's just the way it is. ‘In any case,’ he says, ‘the few times when we do get hold of the original thief of a precious work of art, we must undress him completely (financially). Go after his stuff! Hold him civil liable for damage suffered! The Van Gogh Museum did this to Octave Durham; very well. The two Van Gogh paintings are recovered, but he still has to pay for many years to come. That book of his, Master Thief? Any royalties are going to the Van Gogh Museum.’

The criminal lawyer Pestman comes back on his expectation that an investigation into Brand is already underway. Not because he knows about the good relationship between Brand and the police, but because he hears about Vincent Kraal, the lawyer who used the stolen Van Goghs to avert a longer prison sentence for Houtman. For the use of the Van Goghs, for which "brother-in-law" Arthur was released, Kraal had to come before the Council of Discipline, the disciplinary body for lawyers. The question was whether, as a lawyer, he had crossed the boundaries of decency by mediating in getting the two paintings back. Had he not made improper use of the confidentiality between lawyer and client by using it in the monetization (or otherwise negotiating any benefit) of stolen property? After serious deliberations The council came to the conclusion that Kraal did not misuse his position. Why? Because the lawyers’ actions had taken place in consultation and with the consent of the Public Prosecutor. So the Council did not punish Kraal. 

Besides the fact that there and then it became clear that Houtman had indeed been released after a deal [in which stolen works of art were involved], it now also turned out that someone he brings valuable stolen art to the table can count on a reward, not a punishment. The return of art went beyond the proceeds of crime act (legal provisions on fencing/healing).

At the same time it is telling that the Department of Justice has always denied that a deal had been struck (with Houtman). The public interest was of course only served if the agreement remained secret.

Back to Brand, the son of a history teacher from Deventer. During a study period in Spain he became fascinated with the excavation and collecting of coins, and after a few unsuccessful academic studies he turned his hobby into his job. He started working as an assistant to Michel van Rijn, a former art smuggler, dealer in forged art and a human link between the under- and upperworld when it comes to art. Together with Van Rijn, Brand went to help the police track down stolen art. Nowadays, the devil’s apprentice is standing on his own feet: his old master disappeared from the spotlights.

There is nothing wrong with Brand’s self-confidence. Since the burglary at the Singer in Laren, he has told journalists that he takes it as a personal insult that the thieves stole a Van Gogh ‘under his nose’. After all, he lives nearby, in Amsterdam. When he later receives a photo of the Van Gogh stolen from the Singer Museum, with a front page of The New York Times next to it and the book about the thief Octave Durham, he reckons this is confirmation [of the idea that the thieves are provoking him.] 'They are thumbing their noses at me.’

Brand has fans and critics. Most people from the small world of art crime only wanted to give their opinions [about him] on a background basis [off the record]. When asked why, the shadowy nature of their work once again becomes apparent. One of the men we consult, working at an insurance company, finds the most striking thing about Arthur Brand that he likes to show his work so much in front of the curtains, while laws and other objections make the recovery of stolen art better suited for working behind the scenes, according to this insurer who knows Brand only as a TV personality. ‘Unless Brand uses all that publicity to advertise for criminals: come to me.’  

It is true, Brand is in the news a lot. Initially, he mainly told about his discoveries in [daily newspaper] De Telegraaf, but later he got his own weekly TV-program, on public television. 

In the style of a crime show, the episodes are presented as a scavenger hunt (a quest). But if you look at the show a bit more critically, you wonder if they are. How much freedom do the makers take to bring some tension to the episodes? Or add the appearance of a quest? [They can, because] Many storylines are unverifiable, people often blurred. The people who bring back the stolen art - no matter how innocent they may be - rarely come into the picture. A lot of speculation beforehand is given, or conclusions afterward. [The recovering itself is almost never shown.] 

Take an episode about the recovery of a particularly impressive painting, a Picasso from 1938. It is a portrait of Picasso's then-mistress, Dora Maar. A reproduction of it hangs in Brand's apartment, where we interview him. We mainly focused our questions on this episode of his TV program, since especially that episode seems to be about the art detective as a broker between the upper and the underworld.

The painting was stolen in 1999 from a yacht in Antibes, France. The owner was a Saudi sheik. Years later, Brand heard in Amsterdam that the Picasso was circulating among members of the Dutch underworld, with ‘a group of criminals’. In the tv-episode that Brand dedicated to the investigation, there is talk of a Dutch businessman ‘from the Quote-500’ (list of richest Dutch people). This man tells Brand, seen from behind and unrecognisable, to whom he resold the stolen Picasso. Brand also tells us, the viewers, of a meeting with two men at Sloterdijk Train Station, but we don’t see any of this, we only hear about it through Brand. It also remains unclear how Brand persuades the criminals to hand over the Picasso, but yes, in the end they deliver him the painting. He hangs the work on his wall for one night. He then calls Octave Durham, the ‘master thief’ who was convicted of the robbery of two Van Goghs from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. Why? Because only Durham knows what it's like to have such a precious work at home without being able to tell anyone about it.

The broadcast also features a representative of the American Pace Gallery who came to Amsterdam to inspect the work after the recovery; the gallery had sold the Picasso to the sheik. After it has been established that the work is genuine, a representative of the insurer, which is now the legal owner, comes into the picture.

The return took place in March of 2020. It was world news. Brand told countless journalists, including one from The Guardian and The New York Times, that after his investigative work and behind-the-scenes conversations, two men ‘simply delivered the Picasso to his door.’

That in itself is not surprising. In France, where the robbery took place, the crime was expired. In the Netherlands as well. Furthermore, it is not prohibited to walk down the street with a painting. So no reason to be secretive. Nevertheless, the return of the painting will be completely different in the tv-episode, which aired a few months after the return. In the episode, the painting is not delivered to Brand's door, but we see the art detective with director Peter Tetteroo making a night-time car journey/chase in night-time Amsterdam. Anonymous criminals lead Brand with text-messages to the toilet of a hotel, where he finds a plastic bag with a USB-stick with pictures of the Picasso. First he verifies the authenticity of the work in the photos, on his laptop in the car, then he receives text messages that lead him to the Bosbaan [a park in Amsterdam with a rowing lane]. The tension rises: ‘It is unclear whether we are being chased.’ The music is menacing. At the Bosbaan he finds the painting - it is the apotheosis of the broadcast - in a garbage bag behind a tree. Brand is totally amazed, ‘Oooo!’ He exclaims excitedly, ‘Gosh, what a place!’

The voice-over later reports: ‘Arthur receives praise and congratulations from all over the world.’ We see that after the inspection the painting leaves with the man who came to Amsterdam on behalf of the insurer. That's the aforementioned Dick Ellis, a retired British police officer. He also works as an art detective.

Brand did not want to mention the name of the insurer to The New York Times and in the tv-episode  he obviously does not get the question about the insurer; after all, it is his own TV-series. In unconfirmed e-mails lying around the internet, it appears that the finder's fee is indeed about 10 percent of the insured value. Ellis gets a part of that. More interesting, of course, is the question how much the criminals got who returned the work, or put it behind the tree.

Brand acknowledges that some financial compensation, or finder's fee, went to the contributors of the Picasso, but only after a prosecutor determined that the contributors had nothing to do with the original robbery (in Antibes). Brand does not say anything about tip money in the broadcast. Well, he did not get anything himself. In the end, he says that the French police laughed at him on the phone, because in France he could have gotten the full seventy million the painting is worth on the legal market today. Because art theft in France is time-barred after five years. Voice-over Huub Stapel: ‘Typically Arthur Brand. He doesn't care about money.’ We wonder how Brand could have done it, selling a famous [stolen] Picasso [on the legal market] without any difficult questions, but hey, we may be annoying, too critical viewers for his program.

As a result of the tv-episode we ask questions about payroll, tip money, insurers; what is the common practice? Is money a lubricant?

Brand thinks it's the wrong questions. ‘I really regret that you come here and the questions are all about money. For me it's not about money. For me it is about recovering art. Look, what Hill and Ellis mean to say is: now and then something has to be paid. I believe that tip money is paid in about 10 percent of the cases. They've had some of those cases. Why would that be of interest of mine? If an insurance company believes it is important that certain serious art works come back and if such a company is willing to pay for it and they get the ok from the police, Ellis or Hill can get some money.  Who cares? Look, I'm not there with them, so why would I have an opinion?’

Brand seems genuinely unhappy with the subject: ‘If you hadn't called Hill, Ellis or Marinello, but the West Frisian Museum, or others for whom I recovered art, then you would have heard very different stories. Everyone who has actually worked with me, is very happy with me.’

The phone rings. Brand keeps it short.

‘That was the Spanish police. You should talk to them.’

From his phone screen, Brand reads congratulations from the Spanish police. ‘And I'm just a citizen, right? Why do you think they thank a citizen so extensively? Always that stuff about money and a shady world. Instead of coming here and talk about payments in recovering stolen art, you could also ask yourself for who [other than me] the Dutch police vouches for. They say: in all the time we've been working with Brand, he has never coloured outside the lines. So that's how shady/shadowy I am. Not so. Not at all!'

The police appear to be happy with Brand and some of his customers whom we consulted also appear to be very enthusiastic. Even people for whom he couldn’t do anything, such as an elderly couple who enlisted his help in retrieving a painting that was allegedly looted from their ancestors in wartime circumstances. The work did not return, but the couple was incredibly happy with Brand. Moreover, he had done his work for them for ‘a really ridiculously low amount [of money].’

Brand says he earns a living with his books, lectures and advice. He doesn't need a lot of money, he says. 

We: ‘But you did receive money for recovering stolen art, didn’t you? Take, for example, the 50.000 euros [you got] for tracing a Persian medieval poetry book.’

‘Yes, but then you have to take into account how is distracted from that sum of money. Tax, of course, but also [paying the] people who helped me along the way, the cost of travel and accommodation. If you include that, and take the hours into account that I worked on that case, and then you see there is not much left [of the reward]. And for recovering those paintings stolen from the Westfries Museum? 8.000 euros, for a year and a half of work, nothing more, not a dime!’

In 2005 24 paintings were stolen from the museum in Hoorn [the Westfries Museum]. Eleven years later, a Ukrainian man stepped into the Dutch embassy [in Kiev] with information about some of the works. The museum put Brand in charge of the recovery and in September 2016 director Ad Geerdink was able to collect five of the stolen [24] works in Kiev.

Brand repeatedly makes the point that he cannot say much about his work in public. ‘In the underworld, people work with double and triple agendas. If they can't trust me, I am out of business.’ We ask him if we should see the discrepancies in his various lectures on the Picasso recovery in that light. No, we shouldn’t, Brand says. Those were prompted by media logic. Brand: ‘Broadcaster Max and Peter [Tetteroo, the director of The Art Detective] kept telling me that I shouldn’t give away everything to the press, especially not when the episodes will not appear yet for weeks on TV. They said: leave something crucial out of your story. I have done that. I did not tell the printing press that I got that painting from behind that tree. The two people who led me to the tree, later came to the door, here, to view the painting and to toast the good ending of the recovery. So that part is also true.’

We: ‘So you told a lie to The New York Times?’

Brand: ‘Well, a lie ... Those men did come to the door here, but only after I found that painting in the woods. And frankly: what's so interesting about this? The New York Times has the whole story, except for that little part of it. I understand what your point is, but look: I am not a journalist or TV maker. Peter [the director] and broadcaster Max are disappointed that I tell everything when a work of art returns. They want me to save something [for the TV-series].’

The fact that the return of the Picasso had to be preceded by what we consider to be an unnecessary night-time car ride makes suspicious of what we see in the other episodes [of The Art Detective]. In three of these episodes, Brand makes clear what he means when he talks about using non-financial rewards to recover stolen art. That is interesting. And at the same time it is precisely these episodes that demand a lot from the trust and credulity of the critical viewer. Let’s see what story the art detective tells in these three broadcasts.

For a summary, it is relevant to know that the key to the recovery in all three episodes lies with one and the same man, William ‘Bill’ Veres, an originally Hungarian antiques dealer based in London. Brand shows how the man walks around in his own house wearing an ankle bracelet. Brand does tell there is a European extradition request out for him. In Italy, a country that takes art crime seriously, they see him as the mastermind of a large-scale smuggling of illegally excavated antiquities. The Italian art crime police unit, with the great name Comando Carabinieri per la Tutela del Patrimonio Culturale, employs no less than 250 men. Agent Bronswijk envies them big time. In July 2018, this police unit, with the help of the German, Spanish and British authorities, arrested more than 20 suspects in a police action called "Operation Demetra". More than 3,000 objects were confiscated, mostly antiquities. They represent a value of tens of millions of euros. The Italian art crime police believes that Veres sent money to make the illegal excavations possible. In addition, he would have been responsible for producing false documents in order to pass the objects off as legal. Many were sold at two German auction houses.

Veres is challenging the extradition in an English court. In the meantime he has to report to the police station at set times [regular intervals]. Besides this and independent of the major criminal investigation of the Italian authorities, Veres was arrested in Spain in August 2017. He was found to be in possession of 140 stolen objects, including antique lamps, Roman and Arabic coins, rings, clay tablets - and five disposable telephones. In the US he was convicted in absentia for a profitable trade of an illegally excavated golden bowl from the fourth century BC. And keep in mind that art smuggling is not an area of ​​crime for which people are regularly tracked down and convicted. Between cash and stolen, or otherwise illegally obtained art, there are numerous laws, but little willingness to investigate or prosecute, as police officer Bronswijk already explained [to us]. You must be quite a figure in the world of art crime to get a European Extradition Warrant [after you/in your name.] Foreign investigators inform us: the man who assists Brand in four episodes is among the biggest illegal art barons in the world.

Now [consider] the non-financial reward for people who can help locate stolen art. After the recovery of a ring by the 19th-century Irish writer Oscar Wilde, via Brand to Oxford’s Magdalen College, plus two Visigoth reliefs to a museum in Spain, Brand can be seen [in an episode of is tv-series] writing an email to foreign authorities/investigating officers. In this email he puts a good word in for Veres. The art dealer, Brand writes, had been extremely helpful in tracking down the stolen artifacts.

Veres' role was certainly crucial [by recovering the ring and the reliefs.] But shouldn’t the critical tv-viewer, who knows more about Veres' criminal acts, consider a ring by Wilde or even the reliefs from Spain small recoveries in the light of the thousands of antiquities that the Hungarian has illegally excavated from different countries and smuggled abroad? It reminds us a lot of private equity robber barons who, once billionaire, try to amass goodwill by spending a fraction of their assets on charity. Not very impressive at all.

A bigger problem is credibility: why should we believe the criminal Veres? How certain are we that the stories Veres tells about the objects that Brand recovers are truthful? The importance of Veres in recovering these artefacts is clear, so is his bracelet  among his ankle: in the face of impending extradition, he wants to do something good.

Of course, it takes a thief to catch thieves. But how credible is a thief if he doesn't catch thieves, but only traces loot?

When we ask Brand if he believes Veres, he says he trusts him ‘a hundred percent’.


Brand: ‘Look. In the 1980s and 1990s, all renowned museums, large auction houses and even royal families involved in the purchase of illegally excavated and smuggled cultural heritage. Everyone. Bill Veres is still from that time. I asked him to help me find a Cypriot mosaic. Why should I help you, he asked. I explained to him that I can give a testimony telling what kind of good deeds he does, in helping me, for example. I can tell that to a judge. The Cypriot Church even sent him and me a certificate and a medal [to thank us]. Because I explained: he has been helpful in this case. You know, criminals are capable of doing something good. And tough guys that I helped are willing to help me. They tip me, for example, when they hear that other people/crooks want to rob a museum. Veres is also such a case. And again, we are dealing here with art crime.’

We: ‘You mean that is not as bad [a crime as other forms of crime]?’ Brand: ‘That is what I say, yes. No murder is committed, no violence. Listen, if a serious criminal who committed dozens of murders asks me to help him, I wouldn't do it. But in the case of a stolen painting? No problem. And if such a murderer wants to talk to me about a stolen painting and only about that… be my guest.

So much for the contacts with ‘dangerous boys’. Now [consider] the contacts with the police. Lynda Albertson, director of the Association of Research in Crimes of Art (ARCA), explains that art detectives can only be effective if they constantly inform the police and hold them close to their chest. "Brand is not an ex-police officer, like most art detectives, but his great asset is his particularly close relationship with those few police officers in the Netherlands who are engaged in art theft."

The compliments that Brand sometimes gives to the police seem to be part of that good relationship. While Bronswijk told us extensively how low the priority of art crime is among the police forces and prosecutors of the Netherlands, Brand told (daily newspaper) Algemeen Dagblad: ‘Worldwide, about 8 percent of stolen art is returned, but in the Netherlands that percentage is many times higher. The police have an unbelievably good view on it. I dare say that the Netherlands has the best team in the world when it comes to art thefts.’

Bronswijk laughs when he hears the quote.

‘That's Arthur begin nice.’ 

Did he suck up to you? [Did he put a feather in your cap?]

‘Yes, as a thank you for our help.’

Later we ask Brand why he made the compliment. ‘Because it is the truth,’ he says. The strength of the Dutch police, according to Brand, lies in ‘the right approach’. Brand: ‘Let me put it this was: after a major art heist the police is engaged for some two years. They are looking for DNA-traces, shadowing possible suspects; the works. In 99 percent of the cases, they can’t find anything and move on. When the investigation stops, a few things can happen. Or the criminals burn the work because they can't do anything with it. Or the art starts a life in the underworld. It could take fifteen years, or more, for the work to ever show up again, if at all. By then, the work will already been passed through so many hands that the police knows it is impossible to get to the original thieves. The Dutch police turns it around. They say: we go after the art first, then after the thieves. The Dutch police are pragmatic and that cannot be praised enough.’

Does Brand also consult with the police about paying money to criminals? Yes, because he doesn't do anything without consultation. ‘If anyone cannot afford to do something illegal, it’s me!’ Besides that, the amounts are low and they don't matter much, says Brand: ‘Again, I'm not doing this job for the money!’

Indeed, Brand does not seem to care much about money; old cell phone, no car, modest apartment. He is very concerned, however, about his reputation. Perhaps motivated by jealousy, but we hear the joke ‘Arthur THE Brand’ from more than one of Brand's competitors. He wants to look good and if something threatens his reputation, he can show maniacal traits. A chief editor of daily newspaper Het Parool once received thirty missed calls from Brand in one day. Even the Dutch police calls him ‘horny for publicity’. Agent Richard Bronswijk, in November of 2020: ‘The moment we speak he is, for example, in a bit of a dip/slump, because his tv-series have just ended [for the season]. I hear that [in his voice] when I get him on the phone.’

We ask Bronswijk whether this longing for publicity is a problem for his work, the tracing and recovery of stolen art. Bronswijk thinks about it for a moment and then answers: ‘No. It is only important how he stands with the criminals. They must be able to trust him.’

And what about two-faced character Brand shows in his TV-series? Does Bronswijk find that annoying? ‘No, I don't care. I don’t know whether those stories [of Brand] on TV are all correct, but I am not a maker of tv-series, I have nothing to do with that. The main thing is that stolen art is recovered and if you look what Brand has accomplished in that field, it's impressive.’

Art detective Arthur Brand says we overestimate the role of money [in art recoveries]. Art is stolen because the opportunity arises. He names the Picasso as an example. The sheik had his boat rebuilt, so people walked in and out and the opportunity presented itself to steal the painting. The loot then entered criminal circles. The turnover rate is high [in the underworld] and eventually the art work ended up with someone who did not even know that it was stolen. We also misjudge his motives, Brand says. We may not believe there are people who do something for something else than money, but that is our problem, not his. He invites us to put our own house in order. 

We want to so, but not in the way Brand has in mind. We’d like to put our house in order als journalists. We keep interviewing him, hoping for exciting stories. But to crucial questions - what role do insurers play? What are the rates? How much was paid for the Picasso and to whom? - he is unable or unwilling to answer. That is understandable, because Brand's work is best done in semi-darkness, behind the scenes. Brand, however, wants to get praise in front of the screens and says there is nothing ‘shadowy’ about his work, but in a nearly two-hour interview with us, he says ‘off the record’ exactly fifty times. In other words: what I am about to tell you, you cannot write down.

Brand believes it goes without saying that he cannot tell much on the record.

He calls us again later, over the phone. ‘Surely you can understand that there is a lot I cannot tell you?’ Yes, we understand it, certainly. Even though he claims he is not a ‘shadowy’ figure, he works in a twilight zone, as [voice-over, famous Dutch actor] Huub Stapel says in the intro of all episodes of The Art Detective. At the same time, this makes Brand a rather unsuitable source for those who really want to know more about the recovery of stolen art. 

To go back to at least one of our questions: is money being exchanges to recover the Picasso? Yes. Even Brand acknowledged that, earlier on a radioshow. Payments has been made, and he went on to say that it is impossible for hem to say anything about the amount of money. Even Bronswijk, the officer who leads the small police department for art crime, acknowledges that the people who brought the Picasso out of the underworld, received money. How much? We can't figure it out. We do know that money has gone to former agent Dick Ellis, who collected the painting from Brand’s appartement in Amsterdam on behalf of the insurer. More than one hundred thousand euros, perhaps four hundred thousand, 10 percent of the insured value of the painting. Who were the men who brought the painting to Brand’s apartment? We don't know, even if they came to Brand’s own door. And even though they only got the money after a prosecutor determined that they were not involved in the original robbery.

We are afraid to make strong statements, because many of the sources we spoke to while working on this chapter proved notoriously unreliable in the weeks and months that followed. In the name of art and society, it has become so common in the world of art recovery to tell untruths, that hard knowledge is a commodity scarcer than the priceless art that is looted.

And how did the Arthur from the family end up? Shortly after he was released thanks to the paintings of Van Gogh, he arrived at his girlfriend's doorstep with a shiny new Golf GTI. Later it went wrong, again, with the relationship and his life, and the last contact with him dates back to the time when he was serving a prison sentence in Portugal. He asked for a bag of Dutch licorice.

And Kees Houtman, whose lawyer brought the two Van Goghs back to the rightful owner? As mentioned, the man was liquidated on the sidewalk in front of his house in Amsterdam. The deadly bullets came on his birthday, in 2005.

And Arthur Brand? Shortly before this book went to press, he addresses on his twitter account, in English, the criminals in possession of the Frans Hals that was stolen from Het Hofje Mevrouw Van Aerden in Leerdam, in August 2020. 'On the trail of the Frans Hals, who was stolen for the third time in the Netherlands last year', he writes on Twitter: 'I know you guys read me here, I read you there ...' Followed by an emoticon: a wink with a kiss and a heart.

In follow up messages, someone is asking Brand if ‘they’ can read him on twitter. ‘Yes,’ Brand replies, they follow him on Twitter under a false name. ‘They read me here so they get nervous.’

Art robbery, it is an exciting spectacle.







1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I doubted you Art Hostage, reading this makes me wonder if you might be telling the truth all this time?