The mysterious art of Amsterdam’s ‘Unknown Sculptor’

The city manages the works of an anonymous doctor. Here are 6 places to see it.

In the heart of the Red Light District, tucked away between the cobblestones, lies the mysteriously placed bronze breastplate. (Noelle de Leeuw)

In the heart of Amsterdam’s Red Light District, in front of a magnificently imposing church, a piece of art in the road attracts just as many eyes as all the provocative scenery that surrounds it.

A bronze breast, gently caressed by an equally bronze hand, sticks out between cobblestones. The tiny sculpture raises just as many eyebrows today as it did when it appeared on a winter’s night in 1993, placed by an artist whose identity remains a mystery.

The anonymous artist was active throughout the ’80s and ’90s, operating in the dead of night and scattering a total of six sculptures throughout Amsterdam.

Rumors about the artist’s identity quickly spread, pointed fingers and all. The city council of Amsterdam, however, was able to reach the secret sculptor and struck a deal. The city was allowed to claim ownership of his work under one condition: It would keep the artist’s identity a secret.

All the council has shared is that, when he was active, the sculptor was a recreational artist, earning his paycheck in the medical field. A doctor by day and an anonymous street artist by night, he bedazzled the city of Amsterdam one artwork at a time.

The artworks are simply accredited to the “Unknown Sculptor.” And although Amsterdam has always been high on the lists of art connoisseurs worldwide, the story behind some of the city’s most accessible artworks remains widely unknown. Here’s where you can find the Unknown Sculptor’s work.

‘Man With Violin Case’

The first piece of work by the Unknown Sculptor appeared in 1982 in a location just outside of the realm of where a typical visitor would stray.

In “Man With Violin Case,” which has also been referred to as “Man Trying to Catch Line 10,” a headless man in a raincoat and hat is carrying a violin case and running as if trying to catch the tram, which stops right in front of him. After a few years, the man disappeared. When he returned, he had been painted blue. Quelle mystery.

You’ll find him if you walk just a mere 10 minutes southwest from the Anne Frank House. That’s just outside of the Jordaan, Amsterdam’s picturesque locals’ neighborhood filled with smaller canals lined by crooked townhouses. And although Tramline 10 is defunct, he is now aiming for Line 5, for which he appears to be hurrying just as much.

Tweede Hugo de Grootstraat

‘The Little Woodcutter’

In 1989, a tree in the middle of the bustling city center suddenly had a visitor: “Het Boomzagertje,” or “The Little Woodcutter.” This little guy, who can be a little difficult to spot, is not far from Museumplein, which houses some of the most well-known and prestigious art in the world.

The woodcutter was placed in the night before then-Queen Beatrix’s birthday. Begging for any of this to make sense, Amsterdammers jumped to the conclusion that it was the queen herself who had been behind these artworks.

Featuring a saw and a beret, the woodcutter is barely noticeably in the hustle and bustle of the city, hiding between the leaves in the spring and summer. But while everyone is mingling with a Rembrandt, van Gogh or Vermeer, around the corner he quietly goes about his business.

Leidsebosje park

‘The Violinist’

In the bend of the Amstel River is a round building that oozes grandeur: the Stopera. It houses both Amsterdam’s city hall and the National Opera & Ballet. Inside the former, next to the entrance, appears to be a bronze violinist breaking through the floor and striking his instrument as if he were delighting all those strolling along the water with a ditty.

The Violinist” is the only indoor piece by the Unknown Sculptor. The sculpture was initially intended to be placed in the sea, rising and disappearing from between the waves. It found its way to the city hall in 1991 and hasn’t left since.

Sharing a wall with the National Opera & Ballet suits the diligent musician well. Just outside, Waterlooplein is the home of the oldest flea market in the country.

National Opera & Ballet, Amstel 3

‘The Breastplate’

“The Breastplate” is still the most magnetic of the Unknown Sculptor’s works, attracting glances from most who pass by. It can be found in front of the Oude Kerk, which straightforwardly translates to the Old Church; consecrated in 1306, it is Amsterdam’s oldest building.

After the sculpture appeared in February 1993, the city quickly removed it. Within a week, it had appeared and disappeared again. Residents of the neighborhood made complaints about the bronze piece of art. It was a noise nuisance, with people stepping on it or hitting it with stones. It was inappropriate, next to the church. It was plain sexist.

The plate made its reappearance, however, once again on request of the Amsterdammers. This is actually quite the piece of art, the consensus was.

The plate is seducing as ever, befitting its neighborhood. Except taking a closer look at this breast doesn’t cost you a penny.

Oudekerksplein

‘The Accordion Player’

In Amsterdam’s Jordaan neighborhood, the anonymous artist struck again on an unassuming residential street. “The Accordion Player” (1994) is attached to the facade of a townhouse, in the style of what the Dutch call a “gable stone.”

Amsterdam is scattered with old gable stones, which originally served more of a practical purpose than the decorative one they do today. Street numbers were an unknown concept in Amsterdam until the 18th century. Before that, a gable stone would give a clue as to what kind of people lived in the house, or identify the business located there. Whether “The Accordion Player” is a nod to Amsterdam practices of yore or is merely an ornamental piece is unknown, but the musician is well worth a visit.

It was once a working-class area, but the streets surrounding “The Accordion Player” are now filled with restaurants, independent shops and quaint canals, a neighborhood beloved by visitors and locals alike.

Anjeliersstraat 175

‘Three Dandies in Conversation’

In Amsterdam’s Oud-West, you will find De Hallen, an old tram depot turned cultural hub that is full of impressive architecture and young entrepreneurs. The indoor food market Foodhallen is next to the movie theater Filmhallen.

Not too far from De Hallen, in the middle of bustling street market the Ten Katemarkt, there’s “Three Dandies in Conversation.” Three bronze sculptures of men with infants’ bodies sit on high steel chairs, right next to a stand selling top-notch Gouda and Edam. One of the figures features a top hat, and his chair is slightly elevated. What the gentlemen are deliberating is left to the imagination.

“Three Dandies in Conversation” appeared on the street in 1995, making it the last of the Unknown Sculptor’s Amsterdam artworks.

Corner of Ten Katestraat & Borgerstraat

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