Meet the Indiana Jones of Stolen Art
At the center of art world drama between the Netherlands and Ukraine, you'll find art historian Arthur Brand.
Image courtesy Arthur Brand
On a warm August day in 2015, Dr. Arthur Brand is in an office building not far from the Dutch embassy in the Ukraine capital of Kiev. Standing, Brand is a cool 6’3, topped with professionally-cut blonde hair and rugged facial features that would look at home on a Viking. Accompanied by a Dutch police official and a local translator, he is meeting an anti-Russian militiaman named Borys Humeniuk, a hulking man clearly practiced at intimidating those around him. “He’s the type of guy you’d better not find in a dark alley,” Brand tells the Creators Project. “But I liked him. I like people on whose faces you can see that they’re criminals, because you know exactly what you’re dealing with.”
Humeniuk represents a far right paramilitary group called the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, who recently discovered 24 paintings that were stolen from the Westfries Museum in the Netherlands a decade ago. Brand is there to negotiate their return, but he has bad news for the Ukrainian, who expects a 5 million Euro payday.
He brandishes the research—mostly auction data and valuations of comparable pieces—that must convince Humeniuk of the paintings’ actual worth. Until now, the Ukrainians have broken no laws, since a 10% finder’s fee is accepted practice. If they refuse to return the goods, though, the police will become more directly involved. When Brand tells him that his payday isn’t coming, Humeniuk is not happy.
The 24 paintings in Humeniuk’s custody are by 17th and 18th century Dutch Masters, contemporaries of Rembrandt and Vermeer, but whose work never earned exorbitant price tags. Nevertheless, they’re of great cultural value to their home, the Westfries Museum in Hoorn, where they have been missed since their burglary in 2005. The paintings are valued collectively at 500,000 Euros, and museum director Ad Geerdink is prepared to offer the Ukrainians a 50,000-Euro finder’s fee. However, that’s pocket change compared to the Humeniuk’s 50 million Euro valuation. That would mean a 5 million Euro, not 50,000 Euro reward. “They had already promised their mistresses new houses, and I had to give them a reality check,” Brand explains. In the midst of this money and miscommunication, giving hardened Ukrainian soldiers bad news is simply part of the job.
Brand has played a role in some of the most interesting antiquities discoveries, forgery busts, and stolen art cases of the 21st century. Dealing with customs agents and national police on one hand and art smugglers, forgers, and treasure hunters on the other, Brand is like an art world Indiana Jones in a suit. With no whip, he relies on research, honesty, and wit to survive and thrive in what the FBI describes as the third largest black market in the world—only drugs and guns generate more money than illicit art.
In his career, Brand has uncovered 1,300-year-old treasure illegally looted from a Peruvian tomb, and helped deliver the only known copy of the Gospel of Judas from Egypt to biblical scholars. In 2011, Brand founded a consultancy called Artiaz with colleague David Kleefstra to assist museums and governments in locating and acquiring illegal art. Earlier this year they discovered and helped secure Hitler’s prized Josef Thorak horse sculptures, believed to be destroyed in the Battle of Berlin, from a group of Nazi sympathisers. Westfries Museum director Ad Geerdink has worked closely with Brand over the last year as they tracked down the missing paintings. “He is a very professional, dedicated, well informed, tenacious, and smart investigator with the right sense of justice and a love for art,” Geerdink tells The Creators Project.
Brand got his first taste of the antiques black market by accident, and on the wrong side of the law. Bored, he followed a group of gypsies into the desert outside Andalusia, Spain, where he was studying abroad. They invited him to their evening activity of illegally digging up ancient artifacts, and came across a coin he now knows was used in Ancient Rome. “If you have a Roman coin with a Roman emperor in your hands that’s survived for over 2,000 years, well, it’s like magic.”
While continuing his degree back home in Holland, Brand began collecting coins himself, and learned that nothing is more frustrating than a forgery. To better learn the difference between real and fake, he reached out to a man whose name he recognised from newspaper stories about high-profile art crimes: the notorious Dutch art smuggler-turned-police informant Michel van Rijn. “He would be sitting there with the FBI, Scotland Yard, the highest criminals in the art world. Sitting there, not at the table, but listening from the next table over, I learned fast.”
Van Rijn, a stout, bearded man with the weathered skin of a fisherman, took a liking to the young scholar and coin collector. He introduced Brand to the informants, police officers, and smugglers who would become the roots of his informant organisation. “In the beginning they called me an idiot and said, ‘You will never understand what we are doing.’ But things have changed a little bit,” he laughs.
Despite the former criminal’s history, Van Rijn’s tutelage taught Brand that trust is key. “If you are not honest with criminals, either they shoot you or they never work with you again. If you lie to the police, they arrest you. If you want to be in this world, you have to be honest with everybody.” These values were instilled in Brand by his strict schoolteacher father, who would say, “If you ever steal a bicycle, I will break your head.”
Armed with connections and know-how, Brand stepped into his current role as the anti-smuggler. He pursues adventure, glory, and expensive artwork, but does not care about personal wealth. “I don’t want to be in the newspapers as the next big criminal in the art world. I want to solve mysteries. In the morning, I want to be able to face myself in the mirror.“
Devotion to pursuing art that “belongs in a museum” is the only way to function in a corrupt art world, Brand insists. While Interpol stresses that illegal art trade is difficult to measure, Brand estimates that a full third of the billion-dollar art market is forged, and at least 30% of antiques in galleries and museums were excavated from illegal dig sites. Whether he’s analysing old documents, cultivating contacts in the smuggling world, or aiding a police investigation, Brand’s goal is always the same, and his attention is never divided. “I really love art. I collect art. And I hate these forgers and thieves.”
Back in the Kiev office building, Humeniuk refuses the 50,000 Euro offer. “This will be a problem,” he says. “My people are expecting something else.” He leaves, saying he will try to convince his people, but within weeks Brand discovered that the paintings were back on the market. Brand, the Dutch authorities, and the Ukrainian government are currently navigating the delicate situation in hopes of returning the 24 paintings to the Netherlands.
Hanging in the balance is the core of the museum’s 17th and 18th century collection, a unique glimpse of Holland’s Golden Age, and what director Geerdink describes as, “invaluable to the story we are telling.” On the other side, there are thousands of Euros that will be spent by forces fighting Russian sympathisers in Ukraine. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking on an April 6 referendum in the Netherlands on a European Union decision to include Ukraine in a free trade agreement—the first step toward potential EU membership. The Ukrainian government’s apparent inability to secure the paintings may hamper the agreement’s passage. "We realise our stolen paintings have become part of a very complicated situation in which the fighting in eastern Ukraine, [downed] Malaysian flight MH17, and the Scythian case may play a part in all of this,” Geerdink says.
“We know every step these people have taken. We have given all our information to the Ukrainian government and are waiting for the outcome,” says Brand. “We want nothing to do with the referendum—we just want our paintings back.”
Keep up with Arthur Brand on his website.