They are two paintings by two major Dutch artists, Vincent van Gogh and Frans Hals, and both were taken last year, within months of each other, leaving gaping holes on the walls of two small museums in the Netherlands.
The brace of thefts mystified the Dutch police, which began months of intensive investigation, and on Tuesday they announced a breakthrough: They have identified a single suspect who they said was involved in both robberies, an unidentified 58-year-old, who early Tuesday morning was arrested at his home in Baarn, a small town between Utrecht and Amsterdam that is close to where one of the works, the van Gogh, was taken.
“For months, intensive research was conducted into the robbery of both paintings,” the police in the central Netherlands region said in a news release. “This has led to the arrest of a 58-year-old male suspect from Baarn. He was arrested in his home this morning. The man is suspected of stealing the paintings.”
The paintings are still missing, and the police gave no details about how the man was apprehended, but the arrest is an important step in securing the artworks’ recovery, the release said.
“It’s amazing work by the Dutch police,” said Arthur Brand, a private art detective who has been following both cases. “Normally, after two months a team is dismantled because they know they’re not going to get anywhere. But they continued and continued and now they’ve arrested a guy who may have stolen both. You don’t see that much in cases like these.”
The van Gogh painting that was stolen in March last year had been taken from the Singer Laren Museum, in Laren, which is about five miles from Baarn.
The painting, “The Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in Spring,” from 1884, was part of a temporary exhibition at the Singer Laren, on loan from the Groninger Museum. Security camera footage of the robbery on March 30 showed a man breaking into the museum using a sledgehammer to smash two glass doors and leaving with the painting under his arm.
The second work is a 17th-century painting by the Golden Age master Frans Hals. It was stolen in August last year from the wall of a tiny museum, Museum Hofje van Mevrouw van Aerden, in Leerdam, about 30 miles south of Baarn. The picture, “Two Laughing Boys with a Mug of Beer,” was completed around 1628 when Hals was in his 40s.
The Hofje is an almshouse for unmarried women that also showcases the collection of its 18th-century founder, Maria van Aerden. The painting had hung in the Hofje for more than two centuries and had acquired some fame, beyond its artistic accomplishment, because the theft in August was the third time it has been stolen from the same small museum. The painting was previously stolen in 2011 and 1988, but recovered both times.
In August, thieves broke in, apparently by forcing open the back door, setting off alarms at around 3:30 a.m. local time. The police said there was video of two people on a scooter approaching the museum in the middle of the night. The video captured the two people riding away on the scooter shortly after their arrival, one of them holding something large, like a painting.
Brand said that he was surprised to learn that the suspect is thought to have stolen both works, from two different museums, at different times. He has theorized on Dutch public television that the thefts might have been related, but only because he thought there was a high demand in the Dutch underworld for artworks that people who had been accused of drug crimes could potentially exchange for lesser sentences.
The thief, Brand said, “has apparently done it before and he knows what he did and why he did it.”
Karina Smrkovsky, a spokeswoman for the Groninger Museum in Groningen, which owns the van Gogh painting, said that the museum didn’t have any more information about the man the police arrested, but was encouraged that the move might help to secure the painting’s return.
“We do hope that it will be found soon, because that’s the most important step for us,” Ms. Smrkovsky said. “We hope this will lead to information that will bring the painting back to the museum, where it belongs.”