Jan and Hubert van Eyck
(c. 1390-1441; before 1390-1426)
The Righteous Judges panel from the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb (Ghent Altarpiece) (c.1430-1432)
oil on panel, 57.09 x 20.08 in. (145 x 51 cm)
Also known as the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, the Ghent Altarpiece was painted by brothers Hubert and Jan van Eyck in the fifteenth century. Regarded by many as the first major oil painting in western art, it is found in the Saint Bavo’s Cathedral in Ghent, Belgium. While most famous for its monumental size and variety of Christian imagery, the polyptych is also famous for being the most stolen piece of art in history. Over the centuries it has been the target of more than a dozen crimes, and all or parts of the altarpiece have been stolen six times. It has nearly escaped a fire, burning by rioting Iconoclasts, was stolen by Napoleon, and looted by the Nazis in WWII. The Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives section rescued all the panels in 1945 except for one, that of The Righteous Judges, which was stolen from the Cathedral in 1934, and has not been seen since.
During the night of April 10, 1934, the lower left panel of the Ghent Altarpiece – with the The Righteous Judges from the interior view and St. John the Baptist from the exterior – was stolen. When the theft was discovered the next morning, the Commissioner of the Ghent police, Antoine Luysterborghs, made his way through the crowd to inspect the scene of the crime. But this was not his priority for the day, as he would then depart to inspect anothertheft from the night before – that of a cheese shop. Soon after the panel disappeared, the first of twelve ransom notes was delivered to the Bishop of Ghent. Demanding one million Belgian francs for the panel’s safe return, the bishop refused to pay. With the second ransom note the next month, the Belgian government stepped in and began negotiations. As an act of good will, the thief left part of the missing panel in the luggage department of the Ghent train station. He has split the panel vertically down the middle, separating The Righteous Judges from the painting of St. John the Baptist.
In November of 1934, only seventh months after the panel disappeared, the public were alerted to a breakthrough in the case. A stockbroker by the name of Arsène Goedertier had made a deathbed confession that he was the thief. Whispering to his lawyer moments before his death, he stated that only he knew the whereabouts of the missing panel, and that he would not reveal it. In Goedertier’s desk (on his instructions) his lawyer found carbon copies of the ransom notes, as well as one that had not yet been sent. It was discovered Goedertier was involved in the social life of the cathedral and was also not in need of the ransom money, as his financial accounts were full.
While Goedertier is widely considered to have been the thief, his motivation for the theft remains in doubt and speculation continues to this day, including whether he acted alone or with an accomplice. It was discovered many years later that Goedertier had an eye condition that prevented him from seeing in the dark. This brings into question how he could have robbed a cathedral at night, as well as the fact that the panel was hung high off the ground making it very difficult for one man to remove it. A witness also apparently saw two people leaving the cathedral that night with a large parcel wrapped in a black sheet. However, the reliability of this witness has been called into question, as he was also accused in the cheese shop robbery.
Over the years multiple theories have been put forward to the current location of the panel. The diocese itself has been suspected of collaborating with Goedertier but no evidence of this has been found. Many people however do believe the panel was at one point hidden in the cathedral itself but was most likely moved at the beginning of the war. The Altarpiece was highly coveted by Nazis officials, including the missing panel. At one point Joseph Goebbels sent a Nazi art detective, Heinrich Köhn, to find the panel so he could gift it to Hitler, but Köhn was unable to collect it.
Six years after the theft of the panel, Germany invaded Belgium, and the Belgian government decided it would be best to send the altarpiece to the Vatican for safekeeping. The panels were in France, en route to Italy, when Mussolini declared the country an Axis power and ally to Nazi Germany. Therefore, the panels were hidden in a museum in Pau, France, for the duration of the war, with French, Belgian, and German military representatives agreeing that a consensus would be needed to ever move the work. At the same time, Hitler was anxious to have the Altarpiece in Germany. The reason being that this was seen as a National Socialist "repatriation project": six panels of the altar, which had been acquired by the Prussian king in the 19th century, had to be transferred back to Belgium as compensation for war damage under the Treaty of Versailles after World War I.
In July 1942, Hitler ordered to move the entire altar - not only the panels given to Belgium in 1919 - to Neuschwanstein Castle, the depot of the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR), as a "security measure." The Vichy government cooperated, and the altar arrived there on August 8, 1942. Eventually, however, this location became too dangerous due to Allied bombing raids, and the panels were finally moved to the Altaussee salt mine in Austria. They were discovered there in 1945 by the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives personnel, and were later returned to Belgium in a royal ceremony.
The Righteous Judges panel that is on view today in Ghent was painted in 1945 by Jef Van der Veken, an artist and occasional forger. Some people have posited that he was involved with the theft, and that the copy of the panel is in fact the original. Other reports have surfaced claiming that the panel is buried under a busy Ghent shopping square. In 1995, the skull of Goedertier was illegally exhumed before being stolen for a séance. This theft has never left the public consciousness, and still today the Ghent police have a detective assigned to the case. As for the rest of the Altarpiece: it is much better protected than it was in 1934, as it is now enclosed in bulletproof glass.