(PCM) It was very surprising for us to learn that Hubert and Jan van Eyck’s 12 panel Adoration of the Mystic Lamb (also known as the Ghent Altarpiece) is widely regarded as the most stolen art piece throughout history. It was robbed by Napoleon, nearly burned by Calvinists, sought after by the Nazis and that is only naming a few, in fact part of the art piece has been missing since 1934 and has yet to ever be recovered.
According to Wikipedia, the Ghent Altarpiece is considered a masterpiece of European art and one of the world’s treasures. The panels are organised in two vertical registers, each with double sets of foldable wings containing inner and outer panel paintings. The upper register of the inner panels form the central Deësis of Christ the King, Virgin Mary and John the Baptist. They are immediately flanked in the next panels by angels playing music and, on the far outermost panels, the naked figures of Adam and Eve. The four lower-register panels are divided into two pairs; sculptural grisaille paintings of St John the Baptist and St John the Evangelist, and on the two outer panels, donor portraits of Joost Vijdt and his wife Lysbette Borluut. The central panel of the lower register shows a gathering of saints, sinners, clergy and soldiers attendant at an adoration of the Lamb of God. There are several groupings of figures, overseen by the dove of the Holy Spirit.
The painting is also credited as being the world’s first major oil painting and is chock full of Christian mysticism making it one of the most influential pieces of artwork in the world.
The panels were threatened during outbreaks of iconoclasm, and have suffered fire damage. During different wars, some panels were sold and others looted. A number were captured by the German occupying forces during World War I, but were later returned to St. Bavo’s Cathedral. In 1934 two panels, The Just Judges and Saint John the Baptist, were stolen. The “Saint John the Baptist” panel was returned soon after, but “The Just Judges” panel is still missing. Albert Camus in The Fall imagines it is kept by the protagonist, Clamence, in his Amsterdam apartment. In 1945, the altarpiece was returned from Germany after spending much of World War II hidden in a salt mine, which greatly damaged the paint and varnish. The Belgian art restorer Jef Van der Veken produced a copy of ‘The Just Judges’, as part of an overall restoration effort, however the original panel has never been located.
After a ransom was offered only one of the two panels that were stolen in 1934 was returned. Here’s where things take a strange turn! A stockbroker named Arsène Goedertier had a heart attack at a Catholic political rally. He summoned his lawyer, Georges de Vos, to his deathbed. Just before he died, De Vos claimed, Goedertier whispered: “I alone know where the Mystic Lamb is. The information is in the drawer on the right of my writing table, in an envelope marked ‘mutualité.'” The lawyer followed the instructions and found carbon copies of the ransom notes, plus a final, unsent note with a teasing clue about the stolen panel’s whereabouts: “it rests in a place where neither I, nor anybody else, can take it away without arousing the attention of the public.”
In 1995, Goedertier’s skull was illegally excavated by an amateur detective. Someone then stole the skull to host a seance and ask Goedertier about the theft. In 2004, DNA tests were run on the stamps of the ransom letters, reasoning that they might contain the thief’s saliva. The tests were inconclusive.
To this day, a detective of the Ghent police is assigned to the case of the lost panel and new leads to it’s whereabouts are followed almost daily.