Art Crime

Talking about art crimes, on the evening of 23 September 1971, a 21-year-old hotel waiter, Mario Pierre Roymans, stole Vermeer's Love Letter from the Fine Arts Palace in Brussels where it was on loan from the Rijksmuseum as a part of the Rembrandt and his Age exhibition.

The thief had locked himself in an electrical closet until the museum was closed. He then took the painting off the wall and tried to escape out of a window. However, when the frame failed to fit through the window, he cut the canvas from its frame with a potato peeler and hid the painting in his back pocket. Roymans first concealed the painting in his room at his place of work, The Soetewey Hotel. Later, he buried it in a forest, but when it started to rain, he recovered it and hid it in his room inside his pillowcase.

Roymans is thought to have been motivated by news of the bloodshed, rape, and murder of the 1971 Bangladesh genocide. On October 3, 1971, using the name "Tijl van Limburg" (a character similar to Robin Hood), Roymans contacted the Brussels newspaper Le Soir and asked for a reporter to meet him in a forest with a camera. He drove the reporter, blindfolded, to a church and unveiled the painting from a white cloth cover. After letting the reporter take photos of the canvas in the cars headlights, he drove him back. He told the reporter that he actually loved art, but also loved humanity. After the encounter, the pictures were published, alongside Roymans’ conditions: 200 million Belgian francs to be given to famine-stricken Bengali refugees in East Pakistan. Roymans additionally requested the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and the Centre for Fine Arts in Brussels organize campaigns in their respective countries to raise money to combat world famine.

The painting was returned to the Rijksmuseum on October 8 but wasn't announced to the public until October 11. It was in very poor condition after being cut crudely out of its stretcher bars and frame. The restoration took almost a year. Roymans was given a court fine and sentenced to two years in prison, but only served six months.

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