Claudia Fennell ’24
On Friday, Sept. 24, a three-judge panel met in the Netherlands and came to a verdict that sentenced an unnamed 59-year-old man—identified as Nils M.—to eight years in prison and ordered him to pay a hefty fine. Indeed, the court condemned his wrongdoing as a serious crime, determined to make him pay the price for his actions by sentencing him to the maximum possible imprisonment for his actions.
What was this man convicted of?
The Dutch car repairman is charged with stealing expensive and historic paintings. He left behind two pieces of DNA evidence, one at each of the two crime scenes. These traces have led prosecutors to apprehend him for the thefts of a Vincent van Gogh painting and a Frans Hals painting.
In March 2020, the van Gogh painting titled “The Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in Spring,” painted in 1884, was stolen from the Singer museum in the Netherlands. This painting is valued at $2.9 million. The thief used a sledgehammer to break the two doors, giving him access to the museum. He also used explosives to open another door. However, he failed to think of everything—part of a broken frame left behind at the museum contained his DNA.
In August 2020, the painting titled “Two Laughing Boys with a Mug of Beer,” painted in 1626 by Frans Hans, was stolen from the Netherlands’ Museum Het Hofje van Aerden. This painting is valued at $17.6 million. In this robbery, the thief broke the museum’s back doors and left DNA evidence on a tension strap that he used to lower either the painting or himself. As a car repairman, he had access to these straps, and they were found present in the garage that he worked in. He claims, however, that he did not know how they ended up at the crime scene.
In addition to the matching DNA at both scenes, the robberies that occurred in May and August were similar in that the museums were broken into at about the same time, with force used to enter, and the criminal drove away with a partner on a scooter to escape after stealing both pieces of artwork.
The DNA and behavioral evidence at the crime scenes led detectives to the Dutch car repairman, whose DNA was already in their database because of a previous arrest for the theft of 17th-century antiques for which he spent five years in prison.
The Netherlands courts, as well as the public, expressed that these paintings have cultural and historical significance for them. When speaking to the Independent, the court said, “That is why, and given the criminal record of the suspect who is, according to the court, an incorrigible and calculating criminal, the court considers the maximum sentence to be appropriate.” The Netherlands courts want to set an example by giving this man the maximum sentence possible for his thievery to discourage others from attempting the same crimes.
While the police have not been able to recover the stolen paintings, they did find over 10,000 ecstasy pills at the criminal’s house, which could validate their theory that his art thefts were tied to the drug world. When speaking to the New York Times, Arthur Brand, a private art detective, said that he “believes there is demand in the Dutch underworld for artworks. People accused of drug crimes could think that a stolen artwork could potentially be surrendered to the authorities in exchange for a lesser sentence.” Apparently, the demand for stolen art has risen, and the Dutch car repairman decided to supply it. Although he still claims his innocence in the crimes, he will now spend eight years in prison for that decision.