Stealing the Mystic Lamb: The True Story of the World’s Most Coveted Masterpiece, a best-selling history of the world’s most stolen artwork, The Ghent Altarpiece.
Stealing the Mystic Lamb: The True Story of the World’s Most Coveted Masterpiece, a best-selling history of the world’s most stolen artwork, The Ghent Altarpiece. The book was published in 2010 by PublicAffairs. It tells the story of The Ghent Altarpiece (also known as “The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb,” or simply “The Mystic Lamb”), a monumental oil painting by the Flemish master Jan van Eyck, currently on display in the cathedral of Saint Bavo, in the city of Ghent. The work is arguably the most influential painting in history, and it is also the most frequently stolen artwork of all-time. Charney’s book tells the story of the artwork and the many crimes and mysteries of which it was the victim since its completion in 1432.
Jan van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece is on any art historian’s list of the ten most important paintings ever made. Often referred to by the subject of its central panel, The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, it represents the fulcrum between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. It is also the most frequently stolen artwork of all time. Since its completion in 1432, this twelve panel oil painting has been looted in three different wars, burned, dismembered, forged, smuggled, illegally sold, censored, hidden, attacked by iconoclasts, hunted by the Nazis and Napoleon, used as a diplomatic tool, ransomed, rescued by Austrian double-agents, and stolen a total of thirteen times. In this fast-paced, real-life thriller, art historian Noah Charney unravels the fascinating stories of each of these thefts. In the process, he illuminates the whole fascinating history of art crime, and the psychological, ideological, religious, political, and social motivations that have led many men to covet this one masterpiece above all others.
The History of The Ghent Altarpiece
The following is a chronology of events related to the history of The Ghent Altarpiece, detailed in the chapters of Charney’s book.
Hubert van Eyck is born, probably in Maaseyck.
Jan van Eyck is born, probably in Maaseyck.
Philip the Good, the third Duke of Burgundy, rules Flanders.
Jan moves to Bruges and is appointed Court Painter and valet de chamber to Philip the Good.
Hubert van Eyck dies.
The Ghent Altarpiece, originally commissioned of Hubert van Eyck by Joos Vijd (perhaps as early as 1420) is taken up by Jan. The state of the altarpiece at this time is unknown.
The Burgundian treasury in Lille pays for the first of many journeys and “secret” missions to “distant lands” undertaken by Jan in the service of Philip the Good.
6 May 1432
The Ghent Altarpiece is presented to the public for the first time, at the occasion of the baptism of Philip the Good’s son, Joos.
Jan paints Portrait in a Red Turban, unanimously considered to be a self-portrait.
Jan paints his second-most famous work, The Arnolfini Wedding Portrait (also known as The Marriage Contract).
9 July 1441
Jan dies and is buried in Bruges.
Giorgio Vasari credits Jan with the “invention of oil painting,” adding to his already considerable renown and mystique.
19-20 April 1566
Calvinist rioters break into Saint Bavo Cathedral, intent on burning The Ghent Altarpiece as a Catholic icon. They are foiled by the wiles of a small band of knights who dismantled the altarpiece and hid it in one of the church towers, locking themselves into the stairwell, and prepared to defend it with their lives.
Emperor Joseph II of Bohemia and Hungary visits the cathedral to see the famous altarpiece. While he admires the painting, he finds the images of the nude, warts-and-all Adam and Eve too realistic and ignoble for his Enlightenment tastes. The Adam and Eve panels are removed to the cathedral archives.
French Republican troops capture the city of Ghent and steal the four central panels of the altarpiece, sending them to The Louvre.
The four central panels are returned to Ghent after the Battle of Waterloo, a thank-you gift from the new French king, Louis XVIII, who had been sheltered in Ghent when Napoleon escaped from Elba.
Vicar Le Surre sells the wing panels of the altarpiece from the cathedral, while the bishop is in exile. They are sold to Brussels art dealer L J Nieuwenhuys. They will be bought by British collector Edward Solly, and sold once more to Frederick William III, the King of Prussia, who hoped to build a collection that would out-do The Louvre.
A fire breaks out in Saint Bavo Cathedral, and the remaining panels of the altarpiece suffer minor damage.
The wing panels of the altarpiece are cleaned at the Kaiser Friedrich Museum in Berlin, which had inherited the Prussian royal collection. On the back of one of the panels the famous and mysterious inscription is discovered, suggesting for the first time to art historians that the previously unknown artist “Hubert van Eyck” began The Ghent Altarpiece.
At the start of the First World War The Ghent Altarpiece is divided among three cities. The Adam and Eve panels are in Brussels, at the Musée des Beaux-Arts. The stolen wing panels are in Berlin. And the four central panels remain in Ghent, on display at the cathedral.
When German occupation of Ghent seemed inevitable, Canon Gabriel van den Gheyn arranged to smuggle the central panels out of the cathedral and hide them for the duration of the war, to preserve them from German art hunters. Germans attempt to discover the location of the central panels in order to steal them on five separate occasions during the occupation.
The Treaty of Versailles specifically cites The Ghent Altarpiece and insists that the wing panels be returned from Berlin to Ghent.
Only now is the Treaty of Versailles enforced, and the wing panels returned to Ghent. The Adam and Eve panels are likewise returned from Brussels, so the altarpiece is whole once more.
10 April 1934
The Righteous Judges and Saint John the Baptist panels are stolen from the cathedral during the night. A ransom demand follows. The Saint John panel is returned in a show of good faith on the part of the criminals, but the ransom is never paid. A total of 13 ransom notes follow.
25 November 1934
Arséne Goedertier collapses of a heart attack and whispers with his dying breath that he is last man on earth to know the location of the stolen Righteous Judges panel. Four magistrates begin a one-month investigation before informing the police. The situation suggests a cover-up.
Righteous Judges theft case officially closed. Amateur detectives will pick up the case and find fascinating clues that evaded, or were intentionally over-looked by, the official investigators.
Belgian Minister of the Interior Octave Dierckx is approached by a lawyer who, on behalf of an anonymous client, offers to return the Judges panel for 500,000 francs. The matter was brought before the Belgian prime minister, Paul-Henri Spaak, who rejected the negotiations out of hand, saying, “One doesn’t do business with gangsters. We’re not in America.”
Conservator Jef van derk Veken begins his replacement copy of the Righteous Judges panel. He completes it in 1945, and the following year it is installed with the 11 remaining original panels of The Ghent Altarpiece.
At the start of the Second World War, The Ghent Altarpiece is sent for safe-keeping to Chateau de Pau in the south of France.
On order from Hermann Göring, the altarpiece is stolen from Chateau de Pau by Dr Ernst Buchner, director of the Bavarian state museums. It is brought first to Paris, then to Castle Neuschwanstein, were it is treated by a conservator.
Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives branch of the Allied Army is founded. The “Monuments Men” would seek out and protect tens of thousands of stolen and damaged artworks and monuments in the wake of fighting across Europe. Among the most prominent of the Monuments Men rank Robert K. Posey and Lincoln Kirstein. Attached to the Allied Third Army, they would lead the Allied effort to save the thousands of stolen artworks stored in a hidden warehouse in the Austrian salt mine of Alt Aussee.
8 April 1945
Operation Ebensburg begins, led by Austrian double-agent Albrecht Gaiswinkler. The efforts of his commando team, Alt Aussee miners, and the local Austrian Resistance would delay the intended destruction of the mine and all its contents until the Allied Army arrived.
8 May 1945
The Allied Third Army arrives at Alt Aussee and secures the salt mine. Posey and Kirstein help to excavate over twelve-thousand stolen masterpieces stored there.
21 August 1945
Posey accompanies The Ghent Altarpiece on its storm-tossed flight back to Belgium. He will receive the highest honor awarded by the Belgian government for his service in preservation of their national treasure.
Jef van der Veken’s copy of the Righteous Judges panel is installed along with the recovered original, so that The Ghent Altarpiece appears once more complete.
Conservator Jos Trotteyn, after two decades of cleaning The Ghent Altarpiece, suddenly believes that the Righteous Judges panel, painted by Jef van der Veken during the Second World War, has been replaced by the 600-year-old original. Tests are run by the diocese which announces that, unfortunately, the panel on display is the van der Veken copy, not the stolen original. But the test results are never made public. Many believe that the stolen original is back in its place, and the altarpiece is whole once more.
The Getty Foundation and the Belgian Government announce a plan to restore The Ghent Altarpiece for the first time in decades. The restoration could finally resolve the mystery of the Righteous Judges panel.
The book was a best-seller in Belgium and the Netherlands. Charney’s book received much critical praise, including the following review from Kirkus Reviews (15 July 2010):
“Charney (Art History/American Univ. of Rome; The Art Thief, 2007, etc.) unsnarls the tangled history of Jan van Eyck’s 15th-century The Ghent Altarpiece (aka The Mystic Lamb), the most desired and victimized object of all time. With a novelist’s sense of structure and tension, the author adds an easy familiarity with the techniques of oil painting and with the intertwining vines of art and political and religious history. He begins near the end of World War II. As the Reich’s military fortunes crumbled, the Allies scrambled to find where the Nazis concealed their tens of thousands of stolen artworks, many slated for Hitler’s proposed “super museum.” Among them was the Altarpiece. Charney pauses to describe the large work, which comprises 20 individual painted panels, hinged together. Art historians admire it not just for its supreme craftsmanship—described clearly by the author—but also for its historical significance as the world’s first major oil painting. Charney also lists a number of “firsts” that the work represents (e.g., the first to use directed spotlighting) and sketches the biography of van Eyck, which makes Shakespeare’s seem richly detailed by comparison. Commissioned to create the altarpiece for the Saint Bavo Cathedral in Ghent, Belgium, van Eyck took some six years to complete it. As religious and political strife waxed and waned, the painting was always in danger. The Calvinists didn’t like it (the Catholics promptly hid it); Napoleon, perhaps history’s greatest art thief, craved it; a cathedral fire threatened it; the Germans came for it in WWI and again in WWII. Even now, one panel remains at large, though some argue that the replacement copy is actually the original. A brisk tale of true-life heroism, villainy, artistry and passion.”
Selected Praise for Stealing the Mystic Lamb: the True Story of the World’s Most Coveted Masterpiece
“The author…with specialty expertise to spare…[provides] an intriguing blend of reportage and art history, providing what is in effect a remarkable ‘biography’ of this beautiful and tough survivor [The Ghent Altarpiece].”
-Sunday Times (UK)
“Well-written and thorough, this book reminds us of the influence and fragility of art, our venality and heroism, and the delights found in both the beautiful and the strange.”
-Cleveland Plain Dealer
“A brisk tale of true-life heroism, villainy, artistry and passion.”
“In scrupulous detail, Charney divulges the secrets of the revered painting’s past, and in doing so, gives readers a history lesson on art crime, a still-prospering black market.”
-Christian Science Monitor
“I am awed by the magnitude of the things I don’t know. Although art is surely a subjective experience, expertise is often required to nudge one along to appreciation. I would not have paused to look at 'The Mystic Lamb' without Charney’s back-story. It still does not appeal to me as a thing of beauty or as inspiration. But I confess, Charney has me wishing I could see the Altarpiece in Ghent.”
-The Providence Journal, Book of the Year
-Los Angeles Times
“Wonderfully learned and entertaining…innovative and elegant.”
For more information, visit the official book website, www.mysticlamb.com. To see the altarpiece in great detail, visit the Getty restoration project site. To buy the book, click here.