Van Gogh's 1884 work "Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in Spring".

Dutch police arrested a 58-year-old man Tuesday on suspicion of stealing two paintings by Vincent van Gogh and Frans Hals from small museums, saying it brought them closer to recovering both masterworks. The man was held at his home in the central town of Baarn over last year's thefts of Van Gogh's 1884 work "Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in Spring", and 17th century painter Hals's "Two Laughing Boys". Police said that they have not yet found either of the paintings-the Van Gogh is valued at up to six million euros ($6.6 million) -- but the arrest was an "important step" in the investigation.

"For months, intensive investigations into the robbery of both paintings were conducted under the leadership of the public prosecution service," a Dutch police statement said. "This has led to the arrest of a 58-year-old suspect from Baarn. He was arrested at his home this morning. The man is suspected of stealing the paintings." The Van Gogh painting was stolen from the Singer Laren Museum near Amsterdam just over one year ago on March 30, 2020, while it was closed due to coronavirus measures. It is around 10 kilometers (six miles) from Baarn where the suspect was arrested. The "Two Laughing Boys" by Hals was meanwhile taken in August from the Hofje van Mevrouw van Aerden museum in Leerdam.

'Huge success'

Dutch art detective Arthur Brand, dubbed the "Indiana Jones of the Art World" for finding a number of lost paintings, hailed the news of the arrest. "Another huge success for Dutch Police," Brand tweeted. "The plot thickens..." It was Brand who two months after the theft of the Van Gogh received two "proof of life" photos of the painting. The Singer Laren Museum said it hoped the arrest would lead to the recovery of the "beautiful work", which it had on loan from the Groninger Museum in the Netherlands.

"Compliments to the police for their investigative work. Nobody is allowed to break in with impunity," general manager Evert van Os said in a statement. "I sincerely hope that this arrest will lead the police to the painting in the short term... It has now been a year since the break-in took place and every day we hope for this good news."

The Hofje van Mevrouw van Aerden said on its Facebook that there was now a "little bit of hope" about getting the Hals painting back. The police statement said that "both paintings have not yet resurfaced with this arrest. The search continues unabated." "This arrest is an important step in the investigation. If you have information and have not yet shared it with the police please do this," it added.

Target of crime

"Parsonage Garden" comes from early in Van Gogh's career, before the prolific artist embarked on his trademark post-impressionist paintings such as "Sunflowers" and his vivid self-portraits. The theft happened on what would have been his 167th birthday. The Hals painting, featuring two laughing boys with a mug of beer, had for its part previously been stolen twice before from the Hofje van Mevrouw van Aerden museum in 2011 and 1988. It was recovered after six months and three years respectively.

Hals, a contemporary of fellow masters Rembrandt and Vermeer, is best known for works including "The Laughing Cavalier", which hangs in the Wallace Collection in London, and "The Gypsy Girl", now housed in the Louvre in Paris. Van Gogh's works have been a frequent target of crime. Two Van Gogh masterpieces went back on display at Amsterdam's Van Gogh Museum two years ago after they were stolen from there in 2002.

The paintings-the 1882 " View of the Sea at Scheveningen" and the 1884/5 "Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church at Nuenen"-were recovered from a home belonging to a mafia drug baron near Naples in 2016. Previously, three Van Goghs that were stolen from the Noordbrabants Museum in 1990 later resurfaced when a notorious Dutch criminal made a deal with prosecutors. - AFP