Amsterdam has earned itself an international reputation for its red light districts and brothels. But no single establishment has contributed more to this status than the historic and high-class bordello, Yab Yum.
The famous but innocuous looking building with the green lantern closed its doors to the sex industry in 2008, reinvented itself as a museum in 2013 but was stripped of its assets in 2016 and remains closed.
In this feature, we take a look at the history of this iconic brothel, the controversies surrounding its unceremonious closures and what the future holds for Yab Yum.
History of Yab Yum Brothel, Amsterdam
The canal house situated at Singel 295 in Amsterdam was built in the 17th century and, until the late 1970s, led an unremarkable life. A building typical of the period, the front door is reached by seven steps raising it above the level of flood risk from the canal beside which it was built. Arranged over five floors, the house is tall and narrow and cuts an unassuming figure along this quiet residential street. The one identifying feature of Singel 295 is an ornate green glass lantern.
The lantern is the last remaining symbol of the building’s landmark status and indicated its location as the exclusive gentleman’s club, Yab Yum.
Originally opening as a brothel in 1978, the name of the club was taken from the Tibetan word ‘yab-yum’ which literally translates as father-mother. The symbol of the word (and also a tantric posture) is depicted with a male deity sitting cross legged with the female form of his consort sat astride his lap. The word means compassion and wisdom but was used by the brothel as a representation of a more sexual nature.
Yab Yum was opened by Theo Heuft who wanted to create an upmarket gentleman’s club in the heart of Amsterdam that catered for the wealthy (and sometimes famous), offering discretion and VIP treatment. A private members club with no permanent members, Yab Yum was able to offer escorting services on the premises and maintain a license.
Throughout the 80s and 90s Yab Yum achieved Heuft’s original goals and quickly rose to prominence as the playground for celebrities, rich businessmen and hedonistic pleasure seekers with deep pockets. The brothel famously reported earnings of €40,000 in a single night (27 February 1985); the same evening when The Netherlands beat Cyprus 7-1 in Amsterdam in a World Cup qualifying match.
Though prostitution in the city wasn’t legal at this point, the authorities tolerated establishments like Yab Yum as long as they ‘kept their noses clean’ and remained violence and drug free venues. It was a period when the city enjoyed a semi-legal status when it came to running a brothel which wasn’t without its ‘grey’ areas.
Yab Yum put some effort into keeping the club this way and employed security personnel to ensure that the clientele behaved themselves.
Mostly, there was no need for any heavy-handed intervention with regular customers as the cost of services kept out the ‘riff-raff’. Individuals would often spend thousands of euros to be entertained for a single evening. By 2005 entrance fees were a flat €70 and hourly rates with a lady started at €300 plus the cost of a bottle of fine champagne.
The club was spread over all floors and had two bedrooms on each level for guests. Each was individually but extravagantly decorated and was designed to evoke a grandeur of Amsterdam’s aristocratic heyday. The club also featured the now infamous caviar club and champagne closets.
In March 1999, owner, Heuft, sold the club to a business partner, Hennie Vittali (then owner of a couples club in Amsterdam Noord). At the time, Yab Yum was also running premises in Rotterdam.
As prostitution became fully legalised in Amsterdam in October 2000, Vittali announced plans to expand to Belgium and Germany plus open a second Amsterdam site at the Schipol Airport. None of these expansions ever came to fruition and the Rotterdam brothel eventually closed down.
Closure of Yab Yum Brothel, Amsterdam
The club sailed pretty close to the wind throughout its operation and came pretty close to getting more than a slapped wrist in 1997 when an employee divulged how she received monthly tax-free earnings of €10,000. Fearing investigations and closer scrutiny of its operations, Yab Yum began paying legitimate taxes for all its 50+ employees from 1 January 1998.
The same year, Yab Yum faced further bad press when it was alleged the club was at the centre of a corruption scandal involving senior executives at a brokerage house using the brothel as a place to pass on inside information on large deals. These clams were followed in 2002 with news that civil servants were being bribed with visits to the club.
However, the club’s controversies were not restricted merely to possible tax evasion and corruption. The authorities were growing more concerned over links between Yab Yum’s owner, Henry Vittali, and both the Dutch Hell’s Angels and the Mafia.
Altercations at the club between known criminals were not rare and in 1990, the drug trafficker, Klaus Bruinsma and his associate fought inside Yab Yum. Even though gunshots were fired nobody talked to the police and both men were assassinated within a year. At the time, Bruinsma was thought to be the true owner of Yab Yum, often referring to the brothel as his ‘club house’
Further criminal links were alleged with the club being run unofficially by other underworld characters, Sam Klepper and John Mierement. Klepper was also assassinated in 2000 and Mierement in 2005.
The City of Amsterdam was also suspicious over claims that the club was involved in money-laundering and eventually, in 2007, invoked the law of BIBOB (an administrative integrity Act to police organised crime) to strip the club of its license.
In January 2008, and after 30 years of business, Yab Yum closed its doors.
Though no links were ever confirmed to the Hell’s Angels, the decision to revoke the club’s license was never overturned and the brothel remained shut.
At the time, the City of Amsterdam was pursuing its own plans to clean up the red light districts and Yab Yum was one of many other brothels that were either closed down or bought out by the authorities.
The Yab Yum Museum: A New Chapter
Perhaps ‘chapter’ is the wrong choice of words given the Hell’s Angels association, nevertheless, Yab Yum was far from finished after the revocation of its license and was to open its doors again just three years later, as a museum.
Henry Vittali now the owner of a famous sex club with no license, decided to sell the property in 2010, along with the rights of the now infamous name, ‘Yab Yum’. The asking price was €6 million.
Asociations of the clubs notorious past put many buyers off but a new owner was found when Chris Kraijpoel paid €4 million for the property, the brand and the website.
Attracting yet more controversy, the club’s new owner was himself under investigation by the authorities for money-laundering.
In 2011, Kraijpoel applied to the city for a new license to reopen the club as a brothel but this was never granted. Instead the city authorities allowed the plans to reopen the building as a museum.
In September 2013, Yab Yum was once more inviting guests to pass under the infamous green lantern but instead of charging €70, visitors paid an entrance fee of €17.50. All of the rooms were reinstated as exhibits with dolls representing the prostitutes and their clients, the opulent furnishings and ornate decoration left intact from its heyday as one of the world’s most famous brothels.
Guests were invited to tour the property, spending 20-40 minutes to peak inside the scenes of Yab Yum’s many rooms.
The museum was an oddity. It did little to promote itself and was largely reliant on its historic appeal to tourists rather than via an active marketing campaign. This, despite Kraijpoel’s plans to reignite the name of Yab Yum by opening a brothel in every significant city in the world. Indeed, the new owner’s initial plans included designs on a sex empire selling lingerie, porn and toys.
None of this every came to fruition and Kraijpoel’s troubles were to land the club in trouble again. In 2016, Kraijpoel was sentenced to four years in prison for money laundering and corruption charges. Bailiffs were ordered to strip the museum of its assets and Yab Yum, once again, was shut down.
Yab Yum’s Future?
For the time being, Yab Yum’s doors remain closed to visitors of any description and it is unknown who exactly now officially owns both the brand and the property itself.
Given the sites long association with the sex industry it would seem unthinkable that it could ever revert to being a domestic residence and few legitimate business owners express any desire to be linked to the controversial address.
Time will only tell whether a new breed of entrepreneur is willing to take on the challenge of bringing this former brothel back to life. What remains of Amsterdam’s most exclusive brothel is a notorious legacy symbolised by that famous green lantern.
Featured image via Flickr.