The Smart Set: The Art of the Art Heist
It is one of history’s great art heists. This October 16th, thieves broke into the Kunsthal Museum in Rotterdam, circumvented the high-tech security system and stole seven paintings during the wee hours before the museum opened on Tuesday morning. They got two paintings by Monet, a Picasso, a Matisse, a Gauguin, a Lucien Freud, and one painting by Meyer de Haan.
In every great crime there is a clue. And the clue is often the element that doesn’t fit. In this case, the thing that doesn’t fit is the painting by Meyer de Haan. That’s the one that makes you stop and think. Meyer de Haan. Why would anyone stealing expensive paintings from a major museum steal a Meyer de Haan?
The Meyer de Haan is a self-portrait by a minor artist most people have never heard of. It is worth only a fraction of what the other paintings are worth. Jop Ubbens, the general director of Christie’s in Amsterdam told The Guardian that the de Haan “might have been stolen by mistake.” The Guardian’s art critic, Jonathan Jones, thinks “any idea that a tasteful collector commissioned this theft is undermined by the inclusion of Meyer de Haan’s “Self-Portrait”. No offence, but this comparatively minor Dutch artist does not really belong in the company of the others whose works have been stolen.” True. But suppose for a moment that it wasn’t a mistake. Suppose that whoever masterminded this robbery actually did want the Meyer de Haan. Why? What does the painting by Meyer de Haan tell us? What might that self-portrait have to do with all the other, more famous paintings that were stolen? There is a mystery here, perhaps, that only needs the right key for unlocking, the right set of questions. And the first, most obvious question is staring us right in the face.
Who is Meyer de Haan?
Meyer de Haan was a little Jewish man from Amsterdam. He stood about 4 foot eleven and he had a hunchback. This is all true. Meyer worked at his family bakery during the years he was learning to become a painter. This is in the 1870s. He was planning a great work. It was to be called “Uriël Acosta”, after the Portuguese philosopher Uriël de Costa, sometimes considered to be a pre-cursor to Baruch Spinoza. De Costa struggled against established religion throughout his life and, like Spinoza, was excommunicated by the Jewish community of Amsterdam and then, unlike Spinoza, eventually committed suicide.