Nicknamed "the Indiana Jones of the art world", Arthur Brand has spent his life tracking down the world's great stolen masterpieces, from Picassos to Van Goghs. Talk to Ralph Jones.

An inopportune moment

In the dead of night, while the rest of the world sleeps, someone might call Arthur Brand in his Amsterdam flat with secrets about a stolen work of art. Picking up the phone, Brand can't tell them it's an inopportune moment. "You have to work 24 hours a day, seven days a week," says the researcher, dubbed 'the Indiana Jones of the art world', "because if you give them too much time to rethink it, they'll never call you back."

The call could be a clue, a lead or a confession of sorts. It could be the first navigational route Brand needs to start tracking down a multi-million pound painting. Last March, the 50-year-old, who has bright blue eyes, light, straight hair and a wry smile, recovered Buste de Femme, a Picasso painting he believes is worth around £70 million ($86 million).

Arthur Brand Art Detective | Criminal Provenance

After making enquiries about the painting, which was stolen from a sheikh's yacht in 1999, two men representing a Dutch businessman approached him. The man had bought the Picasso, unaware of its criminal provenance, and the men took it to his flat, where it was his for a tantalising night. Brand estimates that, not including Buste de Femme, he has tracked down several dozen works of art worth a total of around £250 million ($307 million).

Brand was living in southern Spain as an exchange student when he first became interested in the art world, joined some gypsies on a treasure hunt and discovered three silver Roman coins. "I decided that my future should be shaped by researching the past," he said in a 2015 TED talk. He began scouring newspapers for stories about stolen works of art, writing down the names of the people involved. He believes he is the only art detective on the planet.

Arthur Brand the world's greatest art detective
View of the Sea at Scheveningen (1882) was one of the two Van Gogh paintings stolen from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam (and now recovered) that evaded Brand

An unwanted dispute

He is currently working on several cases, including the 1993 theft of Georges Braque's La Nappe Blanche from a Swedish museum, and the 1990 Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum case: the largest art theft in history, in which some $500 million worth of art was stolen from the Boston Institution by two thieves dressed as policemen. But while he is known for his detective work, his main source of income is more traditional art consulting.

This is because, for the most part, he undertakes research on his own means and on his own account. Only once has he been contracted by a museum. He also rarely receives a direct financial reward for his successes, although he accepted a modest £3k for his most recent recovery, last December, when he returned to Magdalen College, Oxford University, with a stolen ring belonging to Oscar Wilde.

Arthur Brand art detective | the art thieves

Art thieves are, in fact, one of the few groups who really understand what their job is like. He has received threats and constantly runs the risk of upsetting someone. People who appreciate their work can be a source of comfort. One of the world's most notorious art thieves, Octave Durham, also lives in Amsterdam. Brand prosecuted Durham in 2002 for stealing two Van Gogh paintings.

The following year, Durham was arrested and subsequently served two years in prison, but it wasn't Brand who caught him. The first time the burglar and the investigator saw each other on opposite sides of the street in Amsterdam in late 2018, they stared at each other for a long time, each trying not to blink. But, moments later, the pair decided to go for a beer together. Brand condemns all crime, but points out that Durham abhors violence as he does. At one point, Durham laughed and told Brand that he had never managed to catch him. "Well," Brand replied, "there's still some time left."

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