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Police Say Robbery of 20 Van Goghs Was Inside Job

July 18, 1991

AMSTERDAM, Netherlands (AP) _ Police today announced the arrest of four suspects, including a security guard, in the botched April robbery of 20 Van Gogh paintings taken in the nation’s biggest art heist.

Police said two suspects abandoned the paintings in a car a half-hour after the April 14 robbery because another car they were to rendezvous with got a flat tire and did not appear.

The works were taken from the city’s Vincent van Gogh National Museum, the world’s largest repository of works by the Dutch impressionist master, and police set their value ″in the hundreds of millions of dollars.″

Among the paintings were the last version of ″The Potato Eaters,″ Van Gogh’s renowned depiction of rural poverty in the Netherlands, and ″Wheatfield with Crows,″ which he painted in the French village of Auvers-Sur-Oise a month before committing suicide on July 29, 1890.

Detective Frank Kelder, who led the investigation, said police did not know the ultimate destination of the paintings but believed the suspects were working for higher-ups.

″We have the first and second levels, but there may be a third and fourth level,″ Kelder said.

He said police anticipated further arrests.

Kelder said one of the two guards on duty during the predawn robbery and a former employee of the museum’s security firm were arrested Monday for aiding the theft by disclosing security details. He said the two men who actually took the paintings were apprehended on Wednesday.

The identities of the suspects were not disclosed, in line with Dutch police procedure, but all were described as Dutch nationals.

The paintings were stolen on a Sunday by two armed men, one of whom hid in a toilet stall when the museum closed the previous day. Kelder said the hidden bandit locked the guard allegedly involved in the robbery in a storeroom and forced the other guard to open the front door.

The guard who opened the door was not suspected of involvement, Kelder said.

The bandits forced the unarmed guards to turn off the museum’s sophisticated infrared alarm system and then stripped the cream of the museum’s collection from the walls.

The bandits escaped in one of the guard’s cars, the paintings in the back seat. The car was discovered a half hour later near a suburban train station.

Kelder said that when the second car that was to have met the thieves did not appear, they panicked and fled without the paintings.

The robbery was the largest theft of Van Gogh works in the Netherlands, whose national museums are estimated by some experts to hold the world’s fourth-most valuable national art collection.

The country’ largest previous art theft occurred in December 1988 when three Van Goghs were taken from the Kroeller-Mueller National Museum, about 60 miles east of Amsterdam. The thieves tried to exact a multimillion-dollar ransom for the paintings, but the works were recovered in a police raid.

In May 1988, three impressionist works including a Van Gogh and a Cezanne were taken from the municipal Stedelijk museum, next door to the Van Gogh museum. They were recovered several months later in a sting operation.

Still missing are three early Van Gogh oils stolen a year ago from the provincial Noordbrabants museum in the southern city of Den Bosch.

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