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Pokémon frenzy crushes the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam

Large crowds eager to get a free Pikachu card imitating the painter’s famous self-portrait overwhelmed the gallery

Pikachu card imitating Van Gogh's famous self-portrait
Pikachu card imitating Van Gogh's famous self-portrait.
Isabel Ferrer

Making fine art more approachable for young people through appealing educational activities is not a novel concept. This may be why the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam decided to celebrate its 50th anniversary by teaming up with Pokémon, the iconic video game series and a symbol of Japanese pop culture. The Dutch gallery devised a unique way to explore its collection of the painter’s works by creating a scavenger hunt for six imitation Van Gogh pieces with Pokémon characters like Pikachu, baby Munchlax and sleepy Snorlax. Visitors who completed the scavenger hunt would get a special edition Pikachu card. But large crowds and safety concerns forced the museum to scrap the promo card giveaway earlier than expected on October 13. The card will now be only available on the Nintendo’s official Pokémon Center website for the United Kingdom, Canada, and the United States until a new batch is shipped to the museum store in 2024.

The Pokémon Adventure began on September 28 when the Van Gogh Museum welcomed Pikachu, Munchlax and Snorlax in an effort to connect with new generations, says museum director Emilie Gordenker. The promotional event was designed to appeal to kids and adults alike. One illustration showed Snorlax and Munchlax occupying the painter’s Bedroom in Arles, and a smiling Pikachu wearing a felt hat (looking very much like Van Gogh’s famous self-portrait) was the coveted prize. Pokémon and Super Mario are the two most popular video game franchises in the world, so it’s no wonder the limited-edition card giveaway caused such a frenzy.

Van Gogh's 'Bedroom in Arles' with Pokémon characters.
Van Gogh's 'Bedroom in Arles' with Pokémon characters.

On September 29, the museum store was crowded with people hoping to get the free card. The cards quickly began to show up in online markets, and resellers outside the store scalped them for hundreds of dollars. Fences were installed to keep resellers away, and the museum announced that the precious card could also be obtained at official Pokémon stores. Both measures seemed to have little effect. According to its annual report, the Van Gogh Museum received 1.3 million visitors in 2022. On October 13, the museum decided to halt the Pikachu card giveaway for security reasons, and said “less than 100,000 cards” had been distributed. In a terse statement on its website, the museum announced: “The Van Gogh Museum and The Pokémon Company International take the safety and security of visitors and staff very seriously. Recently, a small group of individuals has created an undesirable situation that has led us to take the difficult decision to remove the ‘Pikachu with Grey Felt Hat’ promo card from the museum.”

Pikachu skyrockets on the internet

The “Pikachu with Grey Felt Hat” cards began appearing on auction and ecommerce sites like eBay and Marktplaats (a classified advertising site based in the Netherlands) in early October, with prices ranging up to $265 (€250). Selling individual cards and entire collections is nothing new. In 2022, a rare Pikachu Illustrator card drawn by Atsuko Nishida (the character’s original creator) and featuring Pikachu holding a paintbrush, was sold to YouTuber and professional wrestler Logan Paul for a whopping $5,275,000. The transaction was certified as a Guinness World Record.

Pokémon Adventure at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.
Pokémon Adventure at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.

The museum’s Pokémon Adventure will run until January 7 and other Pokémon merchandise will be available at the museum’s online and onsite stores. Illustrators Naoyo Kimura, Sowsow and Tomokazu Komiya created the imitation Van Goghs with the Pokémon characters. The Rijksmuseum in the Dutch capital is also targeting younger audiences, and has teamed up with Disney Benelux and telecommunications company KPN for an annual family event in October that has gone smoothly, unlike the experience of the nearby Van Gogh Museum. The Rijksmuseum exhibit includes a self-guided tour featuring Mickey Mouse, drawing classes and craft workshops. There’s also a hunt for artwork that could have inspired Walt Disney, like the centaurs in Fantasia and Hercules, and items like Mrs. Potts’ porcelain teapots in Beauty and the Beast. There is even a figurine resembling Rafiki, the wise baboon from The Lion King. On October 16, the Walt Disney Company celebrated its 100th anniversary.

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