No laughing matter: Thieves love this painting

Two Laughing Boys With A Mug Of Beer, a US$10 million (S$13.3 million) painting by Frans Hals, has gone missing again, for the third time.
Two Laughing Boys With A Mug Of Beer, a US$10 million (S$13.3 million) painting by Frans Hals, has gone missing again, for the third time.

(NYTIMES) - This US$10 million (S$13.3 million) painting has gone missing again, for the third time.

Two Laughing Boys With A Mug Of Beer, a painting by Frans Hals, has hung in a tiny museum in Leerdam, a town in the Netherlands, for most of the past 248 years.

One has to use the qualifier "most" because the painting was lent out on occasion, was moved for safekeeping when the Nazis came and - as many in the town know - it has been stolen three times.

It went missing for the third time last August when the work was taken three days before the 354th anniversary of Hals' death. It is indeed surprising, even mysterious, when any work of art is stolen multiple times. Does its brushwork contain some clue to hidden treasure, or a secret code? Could it be coveted by some cult that worships Hals, or perhaps beer?

There have certainly been other works particularly fancied by burglars. Versions of Edvard Munch's The Scream were taken from museums in Oslo in 1994 and 2004. The Cornfield, by Jacob van Ruisdael, was stolen three times from a stately home south of Dublin, including once by the Irish Republican Army. Rembrandt's portrait Jacob de Gheyn III has been stolen so many times from the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London (four between 1967 and 1983) that it is known as The Takeaway Rembrandt.

Paintings whose value was established by prior thefts usually attract other thieves.

So the Two Laughing Boys may have been stolen again simply because it had been stolen before.

"They know they can get money out of it from somebody," said Mr Christopher Marinello, the founder of Art Recovery International. "They know the minimum value it brought. They know there might be an insurer."

Mr Arthur Brand, an independent art detective based in Amsterdam, said thieves often hope to steal masterpieces they can use as bargaining chips if they are ever charged with other crimes. So they look on the Internet for famous thefts of the past.

"This is the one that comes up when you Google," he said.

In the August burglary, there is video footage of two people on a scooter approaching the museum in the middle of the night.

Under one theory of the heist, the thieves are thought to have scaled a gate into a rear garden before forcing a back door and climbing the stairs to the room where the Hals was kept.

The alarm went off at 3.30am.

The police later found an orange rope tied to a flagpole outside, which the fleeing thieves may have used to clamber down a 3m brick battlement wall, part of the original city fortifications, from the garden to the path below. The video captured the two people riding away on the scooter shortly after their arrival, one of them holding something large, like a painting.

"I felt horrible when I heard the painting was stolen," said mayor Sjors Frohlich who expressed confidence in recovery efforts by the police. "The last two times it came back," he said. "I think we can really get it back again."

Hals was, alongside Vermeer and Rembrandt, one of the giants of the Dutch Golden Age. Known for his commissioned portraits of stern public officials and well-to-do merchants, he also painted figures from contemporary life from the streets that caught his eye, like the Gypsy Girl or Malle Babbe (Mad Meg).

Painted for the open market, the appeal of the genre paintings was their freer brush strokes and joyful immediacy, like the two boys in the Leerdam work, one staring into a jug of beer. It was painted around 1628 when Hals was in his 40s.

It was stolen for the first time in 1988. Three years later, this painting and another one which was taken that same day were returned after a ransom fee of more than US$250,000 was paid by the insurance company and the Dutch authorities.

In 2011, the same two paintings were stolen again. The thieves, it seems, had heard that one could score a recovery fee for stealing these paintings. The police recovered the works after five months when they arrested four men seeking to negotiate the return of the paintings for roughly US$2 million.

The good news for the museum is that no one thinks the thieves will be able to sell such a well-known painting on the open market this time. So they will have to try something else, perhaps offering to return the painting for a fee.

"At the moment, nothing has been heard from the perpetrators," said lead museum volunteer Guus Harms. A replica of the painting has been placed on the wall because those devoted to the museum found the empty space too painful to ponder.