art detective arthur brand

Confessions of an art detective

When a priceless painting goes missing, the art world doesn’t call the FBI — they ring Arthur Brand

On the night art detective Arthur Brand finally laid his hands on the long lost painting Buste de Femme, his apartment became the most expensive in Amsterdam. The piece, a favourite of Picasso’s that had hung in the artist’s own home, had gone missing 20 years earlier, pinched from a yacht off the coast of Antibes. For two decades, the canvas had zigzagged across the underworld, bouncing between terrorists, the mafia and the international jet-set — and now it was in Arthur Brand’s home.

“Only a few people in the world have laid eyes on this Picasso”, says Brand. “And for one night, I had it. So what did I do? I hung it on my wall and I sat and looked at it and smoked.”

Picasso, Brand, cigarette. That cosy trio tells you almost everything you need to know about the world’s most successful art detective — the charming, compelling saviour of lost causes. By the time the insurance company came to remove the painting in an armoured car the next day, the empty space on his wall was priceless. “I’ve fallen in love with art,” he tells us, “My one mission is to get stolen art back where it belongs.”

Here, Brand tells us how he came to be the world’s foremost finder of lost art and antiquities, in his own words…

“Only a few people in the world have laid eyes on this Picasso. And for one night, I had it. So what did I do? I hung it on my wall and I sat and looked at it and smoked.”

The first artefact that really blew me away was in Leiden in the Netherlands. I was eight years old, and I was taken to see this child mummy. One of its toes was still visible. I remember looking at this child, my age, from 3,000 years ago, just lying there — and it blew my mind.

Later, I started to collect ancient coins. I fell in love with the mystery of them — these ancient cities that don’t exist, these plants that are now extinct. But as soon as I started to learn more about coins, I found that there were fakes around, and good ones, too. I also found that there was this omerta, this silence, around the black market.

The CIA believes that the illegal art market is the fourth largest criminal enterprise in the world. We’re talking big money here. But it’s not only money at stake. As soon as you start to mess with art and antiquities, you mess with our understanding of the past. You may as well be tearing pages out of a book.

About 30% of all art on the market is either fake or has been tampered with. As soon as I realised that, I thought: ‘I’ve got to do something about this.’ I’ve always been interested in crime, and I love art and history, and I wanted to weaponise myself against these forces. So I looked to the underworld.

art detective arthur brand

The first person I contacted was a notorious Dutchman called Michel Van Rijn. Scotland Yard once declared that Michel was responsible for 90% of art crime in the world — and that he wanted the world to believe that he was also responsible for the other 10%. Most criminals deny everything. But Michel was confessing to everything — even the things he didn’t do.

Michel had gone to work for Scotland Yard as an informant, and he invited me to work with him. Over the next few years, he introduced me to anybody who’s anybody in the world of stolen art — people in the FBI, Scotland Yard; conmen, forgers, thieves. Every week, I saw people put things on Michel’s desk that, had they been found by an archaeologist, would have made headlines around the world. And yet there they were, on the black market, probably about to disappear forever. I was there with Michel when he found a manuscript of the Gospel of Judas that had been forbidden by the church for 2,000 years, and all copies had been destroyed. Except one. That was the year that Dan Brown wrote The Da Vinci Code. We were living it.

I should have left the first day I met Michel. I was at his house in Park Lane and somebody knocked at the door. It was the postman. Michel said: ‘Arthur, I have to make a call. Can you wait in the hallway because I don’t want you to hear it. Oh, by the way, open the package while you wait.’ I later found out it could have been a bomb. There was no phone call — he just wanted me to explode and not him. But I knew I could learn so
much, so I worked with him for six years.

“Artknapping is a lot easier than kidnapping — and you don’t have to feed a painting”

Here’s how it works. Normally, when a museum is robbed, the thieves try to sell the work of art the next day. But they soon find out that they can’t sell it because nobody wants to touch it. So then they destroy it. But in some cases they use it as payment in the underworld, usually for drugs or arms.

Worldwide, only eight per cent of stolen art ever returns to its owners. Within two years of a piece going missing, the police give up. And that’s when I step in. My goal is to get the art back — and quickly, because I know there are gangsters driving around with priceless paintings in the boots of their cars, which isn’t exactly the best place to keep them.

I usually start by studying the modus operandi of the theft, to see if there are any ‘marks’ or ‘tells’ I recognise — most thieves repeat the same trick over and over again. Then I start to ask around and I call all the people I know. That’s not always as straightforward as it seems — these people don’t tend to be in the Yellow Pages.

art detective arthur brand

Finally, when I’m certain that somebody has the piece — and it could be a mafioso, it could be an IRA member, it could be a drug lord — I call them and listen to their reaction. Usually they say: ‘What are you talking about?’ and then they hang up. And that’s suspicious, because that’s not the reaction if you’re innocent. But in a couple of days, when they’ve had time to think about it, they’ll call me back. Then they send a middle man. And then the talks begin.

I work seven days a week. From nine till six I work with the police. Then when the police go home, the criminal world awakens. At nine o’clock I’ll get a call that says — “Mr Brand, I’m not going to tell you who I am but I need to speak to you tonight at 1am”, usually in a parking lot. I’m always on, and I must always be available. At any moment, when you’re walking down the street, someone might come up to you who’s been tailing you for three days, and say, ‘Please get in this car, Mr Brand — we have a problem.’

I deal with dangerous people. But the most important thing is to explain that you’re not there to make trouble. You might be a drug lord with a Rembrandt which you took for a drug deal — and now you’ve just found out that it’s stolen. So now you have a new problem and I’m here to take that away. It’s not personal, I don’t care about you — I just need to get this piece back to where it belongs.

It’s sometimes scary, but it’s also great fun in these situations. Most of these people have a pretty good sense of humour. This isn’t about murder, after all — it’s about stolen art.

“I contacted Nazis, Stasi, ex-KGB. We found half of Hitler’s priceless art collection in a big house in the countryside”

My biggest breakthrough was the discovery of Hitler’s horses. These were some of the most significant statues in the world — two giant horses by Josef Thorak that stood at the doors of the Reich Chancellery. It was said that they were destroyed during the Battle of Berlin, but they had seen everything. Hitler declared war just 100 yards away from them — and six years later, just beneath their hooves, he committed suicide in a bunker.

Michel and I were sent a colour picture of these horses, and we laughed — these were obviously fake, as the originals had been destroyed by Russian artillery. I thought: ‘Which idiot is making these 3m high horses and trying to sell them for €8m?’ But then everything changed. One day I was watching that famous footage from the second world war — the time you see Hitler coming out of the Reich Chancellery, walking in the garden, and giving medals to the last soldiers of the Hitler Youth. This was just a few days before the Battle of Berlin. And then I saw it, in the background — where one of the horses should have been, there was one of Hitler’s guards. That meant that Hitler, before the Battle of Berlin, must have moved these statues.

Suddenly I thought — ‘Oh my God, the horses in the picture could be real.’ So straight away I started contacting Stasi agents, ex-KGB, Nazis. Eventually, we tracked down half of the artworks from Hitler’s quarters after 75 years — it was ridiculous. Everything was
stored in a cellar in a huge house in the German countryside. The guy even had a V1 rocket, a torpedo, a tank, and more artwork in an industrial hanger.

art detective arthur brand

The case I’d really like to solve is the mystery of the Isabella Stewart Gardner robbery [the Boston museum heist in 1990 that has baffled the FBI ever since]. We’re talking at least a half a billion dollars of art here.

The thieves stole a Vermeer, who only made 34 paintings in his life. Then they stole quite a few Rembrandts — including Rembrandt’s only seascape. The FBI has been searching for the hoard for 29 years without result, and they think the thieves themselves were probably murdered long ago to cover the trail.

Everyone has a theory, but I think the paintings are in the hands of the IRA. The IRA has a history of being involved in art thefts — it’s called artknapping. Artknapping is much easier than kidnapping, and you don’t have to feed a painting. Some day in the future, if they have a problem with the law, they can say — listen, give our guy five years instead of ten years, and you might get some priceless paintings back.

Boston is well connected to Ireland historically. During the Troubles, a great deal of arms went from the United States to Ireland, and there is an Irish mob in Boston. So my theory is that they’re in a barn somewhere in Ireland. I just have to find out which one.

"We found a manuscript of the Gospel of Judas that had been forbidden by the church for 2,000 years, and all copies had been destroyed. Except one."

The Picasso I found is considered to be one of his very best —he kept it in his own home. Then it was sold to an art dealer who sold it to a sheikh who put it on his boat, and it was stolen from there. Only a few people have ever set eyes on it.

I started to ask around, and after four years of work I found the current possessor — a businessman, who got it as a payment, and had no idea it had been stolen. He was very nervous. Eventually I managed, through several intermediaries, to get it back. And for one night, I put it on my wall before handing it over.

I wanted to share it with someone, so I called Octave Durham, the world’s most famous art thief, who I happen to sometimes cross paths with. We know each other — I’m the art hunter and he’s the art thief. But that doesn’t mean that once in a while we can’t have a beer together. Besides, he’s the only other person who knew how it would feel to have these important and expensive paintings on your wall.

At the time, I said to the press that Buste de Femme might be worth $25m. An auction house then told me it could be worth more than $70m. But I don’t make any money on these big cases. The Reich Chancellery pieces I found were worth tens and tens of millions. But who should I send my invoice to? Shall I send it to Angela Merkel? She’d tell me to go and buy a lottery ticket.

Nobody hired me, after all — I do it myself, off my own back. But I don’t do it for the money. I do it for the love of art. And the love of the job. I stopped watching action movies as soon as I became an art detective. Nothing is as exciting as real life.

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