serial vandal sows panic in German museums

February 2024, Spring of Monet is the victim of depredation at the Museum of Fine Arts in Lyon. The canvas is doused with soup by two vandals, “environmental activists” as some commentators complacently call them. The painting is saved because it is protected by glass. The period frame, however, is damaged and will have to undergo a restoration campaign. A few days later, it was the turn of Portrait of Lord Arthur Balfour (Philip Alexius Laszlo, 1914) to be tagged and slashed by other activists, under the pretext of denouncing the fate of the Palestinian population. For two years, damage has been occurring at a dizzying pace in Western museums, like so many drastic actions meant to alert society. An outbreak such that institutions are working to put works that were not yet under glass and to strengthen security protocols.

This holding of culture hostage and this climate of concern are unfortunately not a new phenomenon. We have forgotten it, but around forty years ago, a wave of panic blew through German museums. The Germanic collections were in fact the target of a serial vandal who terrorized the curators. On October 7, 1977, Cassel was the scene of an attack that made headlines and marked the end of a stunning journey; that of the greatest iconoclast of the 20th century. On this gloomy day, few art lovers braved the bad weather to quench their thirst for beauty at Wilhelmshöhe Castle. There is not a cat in the gallery of old paintings at lunchtime, no one to stop the absurd gesture of Hans-Joachim Bohlmann. Before entering the castle, he took care to slip his vial of sulfuric acid into one of his socks so as not to attract the attention of the guards. No one would suspect this Mr. Everyman dressed in an austere suit jacket. Once in the holy of holies, the assailant seizes the famous vial and spreads the destructive liquid on four paintings: one Self-portrait by Rembrandt as well as a “Saint Thomas” and a Blessing of Joseph's sons by Jacob also by the hand of the illustrious Dutchman. A Noli me tangere by Willem Drost completes his sinister hunting picture. The vandal has time to admire the destruction of the pictorial layer and the support and to leave quietly without being worried. Once outside, he hears the alarm sound and gets rid of the murder weapon, neither seen nor known. It's obviously a bustle at the museum: the teams are at the bedside of the seriously damaged works and a guard remembers that a visitor caught his attention. Luckily, he has a physiognomist's eye and good pencil strokes and sketches a similar portrait. This composite portrait, coupled with the report of a member of the reception of the hotel where the attacker stayed the day before, made it possible to identify the culprit and apprehend him the next day at his home in Hamburg, other side of the country. His arrest allows the museums of the former FRG to breathe. Because this is not the man's first misdeed, far from it, he has been carrying out his crime with impunity for six months.

Hans-Joachim Bohlmann.


In the spring of 1977, Bohlmann experienced a fatal ordeal: the sudden death of his wife. This tragedy constitutes the final nail in the coffin of a man who life has not spoiled and who suffers from serious psychological problems, further aggravated by the shock treatment he received a few years earlier. Having become a widower, he decides to take revenge on society by attacking works of art. He develops a modus operandi, chooses acid because it is an easy product to obtain, easier to conceal than a sharp object and above all which causes irreversible and spectacular damage in the snap of a finger. The fifty works that the man targets bear his sad signature: burnt paint and disintegrated varnish dripping on the surface of the painting. Devious, he also systematically targets the faces, the most emblematic part of the composition and the most difficult to restore. Or more precisely to reconstruct, as the damage is so severe. The work on Drost's canvas was such, for example, that it only returned to the rails in 2007!

Sensitive to media coverage

Like our contemporary activists seeking attention from the media and social networks, the iconoclast is sensitive to the echo given to him by the press. He carefully prepares the list of his victims to attract maximum benefits. In the spring, he tried his hand “at home” by attacking the Kunsthalle in Hamburg. He brushes against the tables to check if they are under alarm; once the test is carried out, he sprays the Golden fish (1925) by Paul Klee. After this trial run, he struck at a church in Lübeck, then attacked the portraits of Luther and his wife by Cranach the Elder in Hanover or even in Portrait of Archduke Albert by Rubens in Düsseldorf. Arrested, he is serving a five-year prison sentence. When he was released, he was considered public enemy number one, whose portrait was displayed in all establishments in Germany and neighboring countries. The iconoclast moderated his destructive fever for a time but, in 1988, furious at seeing his pension cut in compensation for the damage committed, he struck again and targeted the national emblem: Dürer. He ruined three of his star works from the Alte Pinakothek in Munich; the Paumgartner altarpiece, the Mater Dolorosa And The Lamentation. This time he was arrested on the spot. Imprisoned again, he then spent fifteen years in a psychiatric hospital. A long internment during which he devoted himself in particular to art therapy. Proof of the great effectiveness of this now acclaimed treatment, it will resume its misdeeds just a few months after its release, setting its sights on a large painting kept at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam: The Civic Guard Banquet (1648) by Bartholomeus van der Helst. A misdeed which earned him a final stay in prison and which made him the worst modern iconoclast.

The Blessing of the Sons of Joseph by Jacob by Rembrandt, damaged by Hans-Joachim Bohlmann in 1977 in Kassel.  © Arte

There Blessing of Joseph's sons by Jacob by Rembrandt, damaged by Hans-Joachim Bohlmann in 1977 in Kassel.

© Arte

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