Auctions Thefts Market United Kingdom

Expert spots stolen work sold by Sotheby’s

Jan Schoonhoven's R69-32 was missing from Dutch museum, but thief disguised work by changing its title

The Dutch artist Jan Schoonhoven in 1979

A stolen painting by the Dutch artist Jan Schoonhoven (1914-94) was jointly bought in London at Sotheby’s contemporary art day auction on 27 June by two galleries—London’s Mayor Gallery and Amsterdam’s Borzo Modern and Contemporary Art—for £182,500.

The work was only identified as stolen when Paul van Rosmalen, a Schoonhoven expert working for the Dutch gallery, identified some discrepancies in photographs sent to him by the Mayor Gallery.

The painting, a rectangular work composed of several blocks with papier-mâché triangles, has now been identified as R69-32, 1969, one of four works stolen from the Museum van Bommel van Dam in Venlo, on the Dutch-German border, in March this year.

The thief changed the title of the work from R69-32 to R69-39, a seemingly simple trick that enabled it to slip through provenance checks and end up at auction.

After seeing a photograph of the label on the back of the work, Van Rosmalen noticed the numerical switch and alerted the authorities. The work was reported to have been turned on its side, too, although Sotheby’s has denied this, saying that the work was presented the right way up.

The London-based Art Loss Register (ALR), which was notified of the theft in March, first alerted Sotheby’s after seeing the freshly renamed R69-39 come up for auction. “We raised the near-match with the auction house and since they said that the artist did many similar works, which were differentiated by the number, and the number was different, we accepted their word,” says Julian Radcliffe, the chairman of the ALR. A spokesman for Sotheby’s says: “We confirmed to the Art Loss Register that the title on the back of our work did not match the title in their records, and on that basis, the ALR closed their query on the work.”

Sotheby’s has cancelled the sale. Meanwhile, the Amsterdam police department released a statement saying that it was “glad that Sotheby’s contacted the police immediately after [it] became aware that the work under investigation may have been stolen. Sotheby’s continues to assist the Amsterdam police with the ongoing investigation.”

Meanwhile, a man who has so far been identified only as “Ryan L.” by the Dutch police reportedly walked into a police station in Amsterdam in August with the other three stolen paintings—two reliefs by Schoonhoven (R70-29, 1970, and Stars, 1968) and an untitled work from 1973 by the Czech contemporary artist Tomas Rajlich. The man, who was arrested, claimed that he had bought them for €100, according to the Dutch paper NRC Handelsblad.

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