Culture & Arts

The Incredible Story of Rembrandt’s Stolen Masterpiece

Stolen on the 13th of July, 1999, during a military parade, the painting ‘Child with a soap bubble’ was returned to the municipal museum of Draguignan in March, 2014.

Rembrandt of Draguignan

The incredible robbery of Rembrandt’s painting “Child with a Soap Bubble”, later found in Nice, and its restitution are the subject of a documentary aired this evening on France 2.19th of March, 2014. A man has just woken up. Like he does every morning, he connects to the Internet, coffee in hand, to consult the news. One story occupies the headlines: ‘Child with a Soap Bubble, estimated at 30 million Euros, has just been found in Nice. Fifteen years after its robbery, this painting attributed to Rembrandt will finally find its place at the Municipal Museum of Draguignan!’ The man is suddenly seized with cold sweats and vertigo. “I made a mistake, I made a mistake,” he thinks at the height of anguish, for he is the thief of the Rembrandt. Patrick Vialneix. He had finally managed to get rid of the painting a few weeks ago through a Niçois insurer. The painting, which made him sink into paranoia, forced him to relocate many times and which he had to hide under his bed, in his wardrobe, and out of the eyes of his whole family, for all these years.

“Don Camillo with Christ”

Stolen Rembrandt
Child with a soap bubble

“I was the thief, the only thief. A decision had to be made. I decided to see a lawyer.” Calmly facing the camera, Patrick no longer lies. He testifies, freely, benefiting from coming forward and confessing in the eyes of justice. This is one of the highlights of “Trésor volé”, a documentary told in the style of a police story and broadcast tonight on France 2. When, in 1984, a fragile kid fell under the spell of a painting, during a visit with his mother, after a football match in Draguignan. How did he “find himself in the painting.” How, at 17, did he see “more than a child, but a friend in the painting”.

Hiding for 6 hours in a museum cabinet

Then it began to speak to him, “like Don Camillo with Christ”, “It was a little like my own personal Christ… the beginning of a real passion, something magical”. And lastly, how, on the evening of the 13th of July, 1999, this 24-year-old young man will outsmart the security system of the museum. To hide for 6 hours in a cupboard to wait for closing time, then, during the deafening passage of armoured vehicles and helicopters during a military parade on the Clemenceau boulevard, to take action and steal the museum’s masterpiece. “I wanted to see it more often, to own it,” he justifies himself.  

Consumed by the painting?

And to live, certainly, one of the most exquisite nights of his life, at his home near Sainte Maxime after the robbery. “It was beautiful; I was in euphoria for 5 or 6 hours. I put it in my room and put it on the chest of drawers. And I turned off the light to enjoy the chiaroscuro of the painting”. Before taking selfies with it!

Patrick Vialaneix's selfie
Patrick Vialaneix’s selfie with a Rembrandt the night of the robbery

The author who adapted this incredible story into a book, Sylvie Matton, describes it most accurately: “It is like the portrait of Dorian Gray in reverse. The painting gradually consumes its possessor, until January, 2015. Sometime after his interview for the documentary, Patrick Vialneix died during his sleep of cardiac arrest. “He returned the picture, and he departed,” said his wife, who discovered the heavy secret when her husband surrendered himself in 2014. Was Patrick’s fate sealed? Was he a crook? Was he enchanted by the painting? His family is inclined to believe the latter hypothesis. They plan to visit the painting in Draguignan soon, and to contemplate his life, to “listen to Patrick, and find answers.”

Secrets of the Canvas

Now under close surveillance, “Child with a Soap Bubble” is currently encased near the reception desk of the Municipal Museum of Draguignan. “It will soon be highlighted at the front of an exhibition of paintings dedicated to the seventeenth century,” says curator Grégoire Hallé. For the occasion it will be restored and authenticated by experts. Indeed, there remains a doubt as to the paternity of the painting! Photos, X-rays and specimens will reveal if it was created by the hands of Rembrandt. The painting will remain fascinating anyway. So dark, with this kid dressed as a gentleman and holding a bubble in his hand.

Patrick Vialaneix
Patrick Vialaneix

To the curator, “a bubble contains emptiness and symbolizes the Vanity of Earthly things, the ephemeral side of life. It will burst, but when? And the sphere is a perfect form, referring to God and the perfection of creation.” The presenter of the documentary, Olivier Picasso (grandson of the famous artist) thinks that some canvases can provoke a kind of spell. “I myself have fallen into ecstasy in front of pictures. Like Caillebotte’s at the Chicago Museum. An extraordinary experience. It is above all the real contact with the work that creates this sensation. But to go from there to stealing it?”

Show More
Back to top button