September 2023 provided a prime example of why we can't have nice things, as an anniversary collaboration between Amsterdam's Van Gogh museum and the Pokémon Company descended into scalper-fuelled chaos. The event was intended to celebrate the museum's 50th anniversary and featured Van Gogh-inspired art of Pokémon by key series artists: but the big mistake was that attendance came with a limited-edition Pokémon card.
As soon as the exhibition opened, it was flooded by unscrupulous individuals looking to get as many cards as they could, and sell them online at a huge mark-up. The card in question is Pikachu with Grey Felt Hat, inspired by Van Gogh's Self-Portrait with Grey Felt Hat, and currently goes on eBay for anything between $100-350. Just over two weeks after opening, the Van Gogh museum threw its hands up, and stopped distributing the cards entirely.
The exhibition nevertheless continued as scheduled until its closing date on January 7, 2024. And now one further twist, first reported by the Dutch paper Het Parool, is that four employees of the Van Gogh museum were suspended in relation to the Pokémon exhibition in mid-December, specifically on suspicions of stealing cards and breaking the code of conduct.
One of the staff is accused of stealing a box of the Pokémon cards. Another, who had apparently been employed for 25 years, is said to have failed to follow "procedures and codes of conduct" by informing others on the best times to secure tickets and when the cards would be available.
The Van Gogh museum confirmed to Het Parool that it was dealing with incidents concerning "a number of employees from operational services", which includes security guards and cashiers. The museum did not officially confirm how many employees are involved, though the paper reports four based on museum sources, and a Van Gogh spokesperson declared with some understatement that "we emphasize that we view this as an incident." The spokesperson went on to say that none are expected to return to work at the museum.
Well, I guess that'll teach a great cultural institution what happens when you try out a partnership with arguably the world's biggest gaming and entertainment brand. The extremes of Pokémon fandom have always been wild, but the money involved in the trading card side of things meant this wasn't about Pokémon fans so much as hustlers and scalpers, who all saw a soft target and easy sales. No doubt some did very well.
The Van Gogh museum can hardly be blamed for failing to foresee the out-of-control public response to its offering a Pokémon card, with some of those September scenes almost resembling riots. The whole story has been one of good intentions slamming crash-bang into a more cynical reality, and that should make us all a little sad. After all, it doesn't mean they'll think more carefully about security next time. It just means that, next time, museums on this scale will just do something that's far less hassle.