The Most Stolen Artwork of All Time

Robert Bevan on the history of the burnt, dismembered and looted Ghent Altarpiece

When an entire cathedral has been searched six times and its floor x-rayed 10 meters deep to try and find a stolen painting, you know it’s an important work of art that’s gone missing. Since 1934, the hunt’s been on for just one lost painted panel of the 20 that make up the Ghent Altarpiece.

The Ghent Altarpiece: Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, 1432, Hubert and Jan Van Eyck (From the collection of Lukas Art in Flanders)

Also known as the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, Hubert and Jan van Eyck’s 1432 Flemish masterpiece was one of the first large-scale oil paintings and was created for St. Bavo Cathedral in Ghent, now Belgium. At the Altarpiece’s centre is the representation of Christ as a sacred lamb bleeding into a goblet – the legendary Holy Grail.

The Ghent Altarpiece: Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, detail of the Lamb, 1432, Hubert and Jan Van Eyck (From the collection of Lukas Art in Flanders)

That the Altarpiece survives at all is something of a miracle. Its folding panels have been the victim of more than a dozen major crimes – it’s been burnt, earmarked for destruction by rioting Calvinist iconoclasts, stolen repeatedly, wrenched apart and almost blown up while stashed down a mine.

Napoleon was the first to steal it from the Cathedral, but, after his defeat at Waterloo, it was returned to Ghent in 1815 – only for it to then be promptly pawned by the Cathedral diocese the same year and sold on when they couldn’t pay their debt. Some panels eventually ended up in the collection of the King of Prussia who bought them for the then-astronomical sum of $16,000.

During the First World War, the Germans bundled away further panels. These panels were returned to Belgium in 1920 as part of war reparations under the Treaty of Versailles – much to German disgruntlement – and the pieces of the Altarpiece were reunited for the first time in more than a century.

Signing of the Treaty Of Versailles, 1919 (From the LIFE Photo Collection)

Misfortune soon struck again when two of the panels were stolen in the thirties in what is rumored to have been an inside job. One panel depicting Saint John the Baptist was recovered but the whereabouts of the other – known as the Just Judges – are still unknown, and the mystery of who stole it remains unsolved to this day.

The Ghent Altarpiece: The Just Judges, 1939, Jef Van der Veken (From the collection of Lukas - Art in Flanders)

During the Second World War, the Altarpiece was en route for safekeeping at the Vatican when it was seized by the Nazis on Hitler’s orders and stowed away in an Austrian salt mine at Altaussee.

Here it languished deep underground until its rescue became a celebrated episode in the operations of the Monuments Men – the US army culture squad put together towards the end of the war to try and limit damage to Europe’s architectural and artistic heritage. They found one of Europe’s most famous artworks sitting on cardboard boxes, with the painted jewels of the crowned Virgin Mary glittering in their lamplight. It was one of several thousand treasures hidden down the mine including works by Johannes Vermeer and Michelangelo – all threatened with being blown to smithereens by the retreating Nazis.

An American soldier guards the entrance of one of the chambers in the salt mine of Altaussee, 1945 (From the collection of Lukas Art in Flanders)
View of stolen artworks from all over Europe, 1945 (From the collection of Lukas Art in Flanders)
Panels of the Altarpiece of the Mystic Lamb in the "Mineralienkammer", 1945 (From the collection of Lukas Art in Flanders)

It’s the Adoration’s beauty as much as its great age and rarity that has made it so desirable. The draped clothes of the groupings of saintly figures, the jewellery, the plants, architecture and landscape are all painted accurately in great, luscious detail.

It is also innovative in its method. Art historians think that the overall form was designed by Hubert, while his brother Jan completed most of the actual painting using techniques that were innovative for their day, including advances in handling pigment and glazes that capture the play of light and shadow. Light glitters across rivers, illuminates musical angels and highlights a whole assemblage of actors from the Holy Spirit to Adam and Eve, and from angels to sinners and soldiers.

The Ghent Altarpiece: Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, detail of church in the background, 1432, Hubert and Jan Van Eyck (From the collection of Lukas Art in Flanders)

There have been many attempts to rediscover and restore the lost and stolen parts of this pioneering artwork. The missing panel of the Just Judges was painted back in by a restorer in the post-war period, while recent in situ restorations have been accompanied by a digitizing process that allows viewers to not only see every sliver of the surface but to also peer beneath the paint too using infrared and x-radiography.

The closed Altarpiece middle section after renovation, 1432 (From the collection of Lukas Art in Flanders)

But its mysteries still attract much speculation: in the 1990s, the head of one suspected thief was dug up and a séance held to determine the lost panel’s whereabouts. A decade later, DNA tests were conducted on ransom letters from the 1930s in the hope that the licked stamps would reveal the thief’s true identity.

The Ghent Altarpiece (open), 1432, Hubert and Jan Van Eyck (From the collection of Lukas Art in Flanders)

Surprisingly for such a holy object, the Altarpiece continues to be embroiled in deceit, politics and the criminal underworld.

Explore more on the Ghent Altarpiece:

- Inside the Ghent Altarpiece
- The Real Van Eyck Revealed
- Lukas Art in Flanders

Words by Robert Bevan
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