Not many people know that the Mahmoud Khalil Museum in Cairo housed Van Gogh’s Poppy Flowers (also known as Vase and Flowers), that is valued at $55 million. Even fewer people know that on Saturday 21 August 2010, it was stolen from the museum in broad daylight and remains missing to this day. Crime is no stranger to Cairo, but even within the context of the city’s ongoing villainy, this theft certainly stands out.
Originally painted in 1887, three years before Vincent Van Gogh committed suicide by a gunshot to the chest, the painting had the dubious history of being stolen once before from the very same museum in 1977 and was recovered a decade later in Kuwait.
So how easy was it for thieves to “cut out” the painting from its frame and walk out of the museum?
Exceptionally easy, it seems, thanks to abysmal museum security, as none of the alarms worked and only seven out 43 cameras were operational. According to Egypt’s top prosecutor at the time, Abdel Meguid Mahmud, the cameras and alarms had not worked for quite some time. Museum officials had been looking for spare parts to fix the system, but that they “hadn’t managed to find them”.
Egypt’s prosecutor lambasted the museum’s pitiful security, calling it feeble, superficial, and wholly inadequate – an understatement, considering that the museum houses internationally renowned works of art. More than just technical failures of the museum’s security system, the daily rounds of the guards at closing time were also criticized as being ineffectual. The theft is especially astounding, considering that the museum only had 10 visitors that entire day. The guards’ presence was so negligible, that the thieves managed to move a couch under the painting in order to be able to cut it out from its frame.
The near total lack of any kind of security in a museum that also contains a Monet, Renoir, Degas and other masterpieces that are valued at approximately $1.5 billion, is a testament to the carelessness, incompetence and downright malfeasance that is typical of modern Egyptian governance.
In a way, this is a story about incompetence.
An Italian man and woman arrested
Not big fans of accuracy, Egyptian authorities caught the thieves, identified only as male and female Italians, mere hours after the theft was discovered, and the painting was promptly recovered, according to then-culture minister Farouk Hosni.
Except, none of that had actually happened. Shortly after making this victorious proclamation, Hosni quickly backtracked, and said that he was given “inaccurate information” and that the painting is still at large, an omen of the wild ride that would await Van Gogh’s painting.
In an operatic display of public appeasement, authorities were quick to punish the museum’s staff. Reem Bahir, the director of the museum, as well as the head of the fine arts department at the Ministry of Culture, in addition to 13 others, were banned from leaving Egypt until the investigation into the daring heist was complete.
Meanwhile, security at all sea, land and airports was supposedly bolstered, in an attempt to prevent the painting from leaving the country.
A few days later, Egyptian billionaire and tycoon Naguib Sawiris offered a one million Egyptian pound (or $175,300) reward for information leading to the recovery of the stolen artwork. While a generous offer, it has resulted in no leads yet.
The Egyptian government meanwhile, decided the best approach was ridiculing the justified public outrage over the theft and gross incompetence that allowed it to happen. In a public press conference one month after the heist, the culture minister Farouk Hosni said the theft was “no big deal”.
“The Egyptian public is very emotional,” he said, “But the theft of a painting is not a big deal.” He added that earlier that year a Picasso and other paintings were stolen from the Modern Art Museum in Paris, and yet no one called for their minister to resign. What I’m sure escaped Hosni, too busy spinning masterful acrobatics of logic, was that the French museum had some kind of security.
After four uneventful months with no news of the painting, a court found 11 culture ministry employees guilty of negligence, including Deputy Culture Minister Mohsen Shaalan, and the museum’s director. All of the officials were sentenced to three years in jail, but were later released on a $1,750 bail, with only the deputy minister serving jail time for one year.
Shaalan, 62 years old at the time, claimed that it was his superiors’ inaction that ultimately led to this theft, and not only his negligence. Shaalan said that he had asked the culture minister for nearly $7 million to upgrade security systems, including those at the Mahmud Khalil museum, but only $88,000 were approved by the ministry.
Shockingly, he recalled an incident in which Culture Minister Farouk Hosni invited a UNESCO delegation to the museum, only to be extremely upset by the state of the curtains that were faded and worn down by the sun.
“I told him, Minister, the cameras are also not working,” Shaalan said. “But he replied, it’s okay, it’s okay no one can see the cameras, but something must be done about the curtains!”
Deputy culture minister, Shaalan, somewhat predictably painted during his one year behind bars, and even held an art exhibition in Cairo showcasing his work, from which he had no choice but to be absent.
Slim chances of recovery
The chances of recovering Van Gogh’s painting are not inspiring.
According to the Art Loss Register – which maintains a database of the world’s stolen art, only about 15% of stolen works of art are recovered within 20 years. Sadly, about 15 to 20 percent of stolen artwork is destroyed or forgotten, while another 15 to 20 % are sold, and another 15 to 20% “stay in the underworld for long periods of time.”
Selling stolen artwork is impossible on the open market, so thieves have to take alternative routes to their profits. Either they try and sell the painting as a “very good fake”, snaring only a fraction of the painting’s actual value, or they ask for a ransom (which they never did). Unless of course, the theft was commissioned by a wealthy art collector for him to display the painting privately.
The best bet would be of course, to look at Kuwait, where it was found the last time it was stolen, in an “undisclosed location”. The vague details and uncharacteristically tight-lipped Egyptian authorities’ response to its recovery in 1987, strongly suggest that it was found with someone from the Kuwaiti royal family, although there is no hard evidence to support this.
To add to the mystery, in 1988, one year after it was recovered, a duplicate was sold in London for $43 million, igniting speculation that the returned painting that resided in Egypt was possibly a fake.
Fake or real, Van Gogh’s painting is yet to be found 10 years later, with no indication that it will ever be found at all.