Since his death over a century ago, Vincent van Gogh has become something of a poster child for tormented artists.
His life was troubled and tragic, plagued by mental illness and anxiety that resulted in his now notorious act of madness, cutting off part of his own ear and mailing it as a gift to one (un)lucky lady. But this anguish also fed his immense artistic talent.
“The more I become dissipated, ill, a broken pitcher, the more I too become a creative artist in that great revival of art,” he once wrote in a letter to his brother Theo.
But following his death (by either suicide or murder, the verdict—and gun in question—are still out) at the age of 37, his genius finally began to gain the external recognition it deserved. So, too, did the nearly 900 paintings he created in his lifetime (a stunning feat considering he only began painting at the age of 27).
These works have been honored to the tune of multimillion-dollar price tags at auction.
But there’s such a thing as being too coveted. Rather than living peaceful lives of luxury hanging in distinguished museums and regal mansions, several of Van Gogh’s works have become the targets of art thieves, proving that the curse of beauty is real.
The list of museums that have fallen victim to these art-loving bandits is long and distinguished.
But one museum in Egypt has faced the indignity of having the same Van Gogh painting stolen not once, but twice, and it remains missing to this day.
Van Gogh painted “Poppy Flowers,” also known as “Vase and Flowers,” in 1887, three years before his death. It is not one of his most famous works, but it is a quintessential Van Gogh, a post-impressionist masterpiece depicting vibrant yellow flowers—with three red blooms thrown in—sitting in a dark vase against a dark background.
From 1886 to 1890, Van Gogh tried to capture in oils the vibrancy of the poppy flowers that bloomed in the fields of the south of France every year in the late spring. He started by painting still lifes while in residence in Paris, before he moved on to landscapes of the flower-filled fields while on location in the southern countryside.
The painting in question was one of the former—a still life the artist created while living with his brother in the Montmartre neighborhood of the French capital.
Sometime following the artist’s death, “Poppy Flowers” made its way from Paris to Cairo, where it was installed as one of the prized works in the impressive collection that made up the Mohamed Khalil Museum. It was here that the luck of the poppy first took a turn for the worse.
On June 4, 1977, “Poppy Flowers” went missing. It is impossible to discover what actually happened given that the Egyptian government has never disclosed details of this feat, but it is thought that the painting went missing sometime during the museum’s move between two palaces.
While the government has kept mum to this day, they have suggested that the culprits were a trio of Egyptians. Whoever these bandits might have been, the painting was eventually found and recovered from a non-disclosed location in Kuwait.
One can imagine the officials at the Mohamed Khalil Museum breathed a sigh of relief when their resident Van Gogh was installed back in its rightful home.
But it seems they got a little too comfortable with the return of their prodigal painting.
On a Saturday in August of 2010, “Poppy Flowers” was stolen once again, this time in broad daylight. In just the first in a series of stunning revelations about the crime, it was reported that the suspect (or suspects—we still don’t know) pushed a couch up to the wall in order to cut the painting out of its frame, and then casually left the museum.
None of these actions attracted the attention of the museum staff or raised any sort of alarm.
Given the prominence of some of the museum’s collection—including works by the likes of Monet, Renoir, and Degas—one would think an epic failure of security on such an extreme level would be impossible.
But the negligence goes even deeper. According to Egyptian officials, at the time of the theft, only seven of the museum’s 43 security cameras were operational and none of the security alarms were actually active.
An Egyptian prosecutor, Abdel Meguid Mahmud, described this situation as offering merely “a façade” of security. In addition, the roster of possible suspects was slim, as only 10 people are reported to have visited the museum on the day in question.
As soon as the frame with the gaping hole was discovered, the country scrambled into action. The Egyptian Minister of Culture, Farouk Hosni, ordered the airports and seaports on high alert, while museum officials faced an official inquiry into the disastrous security situation, which resulted in several high-profile arrests.
Soon after the robbery was reported, officials announced that they had detained two Italians as they were boarding a flight home. The Italians had been visiting the museum with a tour group and had roused officials’ suspicions—after the fact—after someone remembered spotting them entering the bathroom and then quickly exiting the building.
Hosni initially announced that the painting had also been recovered, but was embarrassed to learn this information was false, and he was forced to quickly retract his statement.
While there was a frenzy of excitement in the days following the theft, the Italians quickly disappeared from news reports (one presumes they were eventually allowed to fly home).
It’s unclear if any concrete leads remain, but a month after the fateful August day, the Egyptian Interior Minister, Habib Al-Adly, told the Daily News of Egypt that the likeliest scenario was that the Van Gogh nabbing was an inside job.
“There are many circumstances around the theft of the ‘Poppy Flowers’ that point to the fact that a museum employee participated in the theft or stole it himself,” Al-Adly said. “The location and placement inside the museum confirms this.”
Whoever now possesses the Van Gogh has kept this nefarious acquisition a deeply buried secret, which must be a tough feat—even tougher than the casual theft itself—given the work’s current value of around $50 million.
Each year, the poppy flowers continue to bloom in the south of France, just as they did when Van Gogh captured them on canvas over a century ago. But, for the past six years, his “Poppy Flowers” has remained silently absent, having vanished without a trace.