AMSTERDAM — A 17th-century painting by the Golden Age master Frans Hals was stolen from the wall of a museum in the Netherlands early Wednesday morning.
It wasn’t the first time that “Two Laughing Boys” was taken from the museum in Leerdam, near Utrecht, the Dutch police said on Thursday. The same painting was previously stolen in 2011 and 1988.
Thieves broke into the museum, Het Hofje van Aerden, apparently by forcing open the back door, setting off alarms at 3:30 a.m. local time, the police said, and taking “Two Laughing Boys,” a painting from 1626.
“We have no idea where the painting is at this moment,” said Hanneke Sanders, a spokeswoman for the central Netherlands police department.
Officials of the privately owned museum declined to comment. It is closed because of the pandemic.
In 2011 — as well as in 1988 — “Two Laughing Boys” was stolen along with a painting by Jacob van Ruisdael, a 17th-century Dutch master.
The theft Wednesday was similar to the previous ones, and didn’t seem to be an elaborate heist, said Arthur Brand, a Dutch private art-crimes detective. The museum is small, he said, and the thieves are quick. “The alarm goes, but those guys are gone in three minutes.”
In 2011, the painting was found roughly six months later, and the police arrested four people, ages 48 to 62, reportedly from the Amsterdam area.
After the theft in 1988, it took three years to recover the painting, said Ms. Sanders. In both cases, the perpetrators were convicted, she added. “We are at a very early stage in the investigation,” she said. “We are asking people if they have any video or have seen anything; all help is welcome to get it solved.”
The painting is worth “multiple millions,” Mr. Brand said. “It’s an important work.”
The mayor of the municipality that includes Leerdam, Sjors Fröhlich, called the theft “sad art news” on Twitter. Mr. Fröhlich said an extensive investigation was underway, and he urged people to call the police if they had seen anything, adding that he hoped the painting would soon return to the museum, “where it belongs.”
Mr. Brand speculated that this painting was chosen precisely because it had been stolen before, and thieves assumed it “must be important.”
In March, an 1884 Vincent van Gogh painting was stolen from another small museum in the Netherlands. “The Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in Spring” was taken from the Singer Laren museum, about 20 miles southeast of Amsterdam, on what would have been van Gogh’s 167th birthday. At the time of the theft, the Singer Laren had just closed because of the pandemic.
Mr. Brand said he saw a pattern in the recent art thefts in the Netherlands. It’s not uncommon for thieves to sell stolen masterpieces to criminals like drug lords, who in turn might use an art work as leverage to reduce a sentence, he said.
In 2002, for example, two paintings were stolen from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. In 2016, the Italian police found the two van Goghs in a house near Naples owned by a member of an Italian drug trafficking gang. A year later, the paintings were returned to the museum in Amsterdam.
Mr. Brand said he would pursue the Hals as he has the van Gogh stolen in March.
“They now have me after them,” he said. “I’m going to search until I find it.”