Just over a month ago, the painting made its return to the town museum (Musée Municipal) in Draguignan after a 15-year odyssey that has assured its popularity before being restored.
“You couldn’t really talk about a Rembrandt craze as such,” says Cultural and Heritage Director of the Southern French town of Draguignan, “but every day now we have people coming in only to see him.”
The “him” referred to is the Child with the Soap Bubble, or L’Enfant à la Bulle de Savon – a Rembrandt masterpiece that was stolen from the Draguignan museum in 1999 and found just a few weeks ago in Nice.
“When you consider that there are still 13 stolen Rembrandts around the world, then we can be pretty happy about how things have turned out for us,” smiles Jeanine Bussières
“For the last month now, we’ve seen loads of French tourists coming through, but also Finns, Italians and Germans,” the receptionist tells us. “Even Russians have come especially for the Rembrandt. You can see that visitors do a quick tour of the place and if they don’t find it within five minutes, they ask us if it’s really there.”
The whole story has certainly become internationalized. “When I heard that there was this painting near me, I had to come and see it,” says one German tourist, staying on the coast, who was also glad of the opportunity to discover the arrière-pays – the inland villages of Provence that so many tourists visiting the Côte miss out on.
Draguignan is a garrison town with a rich past and a pretty centre centre located about 30km from the sea in the Var department in Provence.
In order to avoid an embarrassing repeat of the famous theft, some drastic security measures have been put in place: “It’s true that there was a time when we were less wary of visitors. We couldn’t imagine that someone would walk out with a painting under their arm.”
Especially since in Draguignan, entry is free. “So it’s harder to keep an eye on the comings and goings of people. Now, every room has a video-surveillance system,” says the curator. “Small museums like ours are targets for the theft of small pieces. But thanks to the national network that all the galleries and museums in France are part of, we’re informed in real time of every theft.”
It’s’ an efficient system that allows France to fight against the traffic in stolen artwork. There is need for vigilance too, as illustrated by the theft from a Zurich foundation in 2008 of four large paintings by Cézanne, Van Gogh and Degas. The paintings are still on the missing list and were worth a combined value of €112 million.
Since then, Interpol have published an online list of stolen art treasures around the world. At the moment, the number of stolen masterpieces stands at 2,600.