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Ghent’s “Adoration of the Mystic Lamb” theft & reunification of the world’s most frequently looted artwork

The Ghent Altarpiece [1], also known as the “Adoration of the Mystic Lamb” is a complex polyptych panel painting made up of twenty four separate scenes painted onto a number of panels. Since it was completed in 1432, at various times, many of the panels have been stolen or looted or lost by other means & at the same time, various attempts have been made to reunify all the surviving panels & where possible to replace the missing ones with copies. It has some odd parallels with the Parthenon Marbles, althogh the attempts to reunify it have been far more successful.

Basil and Spice [2]

Book Review: Stealing The Mystic Lamb By Noah Charney
Oct 5, 2010
Reviewed By David M. Kinchen

‘Stealing the Mystic Lamb’: Strange World of Art Theft Revealed With Emphasis on the Most Frequently Stolen Artwork of All Time

Question: What Is the Most Frequently stolen artwork of all time?

Answer: Read Noah Charney’s “Stealing the Mystic Lamb: The True Story of the World’s Most Coveted Masterpiece” (PublicAffairs, 336 pages, color and black and white photographs, notes and sources, bibliography, index, $27.95) to discover that truth is indeed stranger than fiction in the world of art theft and looting.

Charney, author of the international best-selling novel “The Art Thief”, focuses his nonfiction thriller-like book on Flemish artist Jan van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece — often referred to by the subject of its central panel “The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb” — a gigantic, seminal oil painting that bridges the gap between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

Since its completion in 1432 the 12-panel folding Ghent Altarpiece, housed in the Saint Bavo Cathedral in Ghent, Belgium, 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 a book that will appeal to fans of Lynn H. Nicholas’s 1995 book about Nazi Germany’s theft of artwork in World War II Europe, “The Rape of Europa” as well as readers of thrillers from Dan Brown and other writers, Charney provides a detailed history of the Ghent Altarpiece, educating the reader why the barn-wall-sized masterpiece is significant in the development of painting and the history of art in general. We learn a great deal about van Eyck (1395?-1441) and the controversy over who painted the work. Some experts say it was begun by van Eyck’s older brother Hubert in 1425 and completed by Jan van Eyck.

Charney chronicles the stories of each of the 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. As a bonus, art historian Charney supplies the reader with an easy-to-understand account of art appreciation.

Art looting wasn’t invented by the Nazis, although they excelled in it as soon as they took control of Germany in 1933. It’s something that has existed throughout history as conquering armies sought treasures from the people they defeated.

Before the arrival of the Nazis, the champion art thief was Napoleon Bonaparte. Charney writes about Napoleon’s acquisition syndrome, which began as a way for the impoverished French government to pay its troops and ended up being formalized with with strict instructions on the removal of artworks and the appointment of “art czars” who were in charge of the selection process and responsible for delivery of the looted art to Paris.

Charney writes that Napoleon was no art expert, but rather a man who admired works based on their size and historical importance. During Napoleon’s 1798 campaign in Egypt, the French stole the famous Rosetta Stone (now in the British Museum) and looted many antiquities. French troops also damaged the Sphinx. (The Luxor Obelisk on the Place de la Concorde, was obtained by the French in the middle 1830s, long after Napoleon’s death).

But, as Nicholas points out in her comprehensive book — and Charney confirms in “Stealing the Mystic Lamb” — the Nazis quickly surpassed the French when it came to art theft, stealing from Jewish families in the beginning and looting throughout German-occupied Europe — including France — as the war progressed. Hitler, an art student in his youth in Vienna, fancied himself an expert on the subject, as did avid looter of European art Hermann Goering. In fact, there was a rivalry among the top Nazi leaders for desired art works.

The discovery of a major part of van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece during the closing months of World War II reads like a spy thriller. The book opens with the Ghent Altarpiece and concludes with the discovery of it in a very unusual place. I’m treating this like a novel, so I won’t spoil it by saying where.

Noah Charney is the author of “The Art Thief” and is the founding director of The Association for Research into Crimes Against Art, an international non-profit think tank. His work in the field of art crime has been praised in such forums as The New York Times Magazine, Time magazine, Vanity Fair, Vogue, BBC Radio, and NPR. Currently professor of art history at the American University of Rome, he lives in Italy with his wife, Urska, and their Peruvian Hairless dog Hubert van Eyck. Find the author online at: http://www.noahcharney.com/

Artinfo [3]

Irresistible: How the Ghent Altarpiece Became the World’s Most Frequently Stolen Artwork
The Ghent Altarpiece with its panels open
By Andrew Russeth
Published: November 12, 2010

A tiny city in a small European country, the medieval enclave of Ghent, Belgium, is home today to just under a quarter million people. It is also the current residence of a 15th-century artwork — a sumptuous, sprawling, and theologically complex 12-panel altarpiece known variously as the Ghent Altarpiece, “The Mystic Lamb,” or, in Flemish, “Het Lam Gods” (“The Lamb of God”) — that scholars consider to be one of the great masterpieces of Western civilization.

In a crowded and competitive field of admirers, one of the altarpiece’s most ardent contemporary devotees is Noah Charney, the author of a new history called “Stealing the Mystic Lamb” (PublicAffairs; $27.95) that ascribes another superlative to the piece: the world’s most frequently stolen artwork. In the book, with the breathless voice of a lover smitten with the one that got away (again and again), Charney charts the wrangling over a work that “collectors, dukes, generals, kings, and entire armies desired to such an extent that they killed, stole, and altered the strategic course of war to possess.”

When it comes to altarpiece, “both the art and the artist are cloaked in mysteries,” Charney writes. The founding director of a group called the Association for Research Into Crimes Against Art, he sees himself as just the man to reveal its secrets — as a detective par excellence — and his narrative often takes the tone of a thriller. However, as he is quick to acknowledge, much about the painting and the mischief it inspired is in dispute, making the book a richly compelling, if occasionally frustrating, read. Forthwith, ARTINFO provides a brief guide to Ghent Altarpiece’s 500-plus-year history, during which time it was officially censored, repeatedly dismembered, and stalked by Hitler.

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The altarpiece’s arcane iconography has been the subject of scholarly debate for centuries, and it doesn’t help that even the basic identity of the work’s maker is in dispute. Though Jan van Eyck (familiar to art history students as the red-turbaned gentleman who graces the cover of the latest edition of “Janson’s History of Art”) was long considered responsible, an inscription was discovered in 1823 that said a “Hubert van Eyck” — Jan’s brother, according to old records — actually conceived and began it. (Charney proclaims that the discovery was akin to learning that “Larry da Vinci” started his brother’s “Last Supper.”)

The trouble is that no work has ever been definitively attributed to Hubert, and, like almost everything concerning the altarpiece, there may have been foul play involved. Jan van Eyck eventually settled and worked in the Belgian town of Bruges, a rival of Ghent. Hubert, though, was buried in Ghent, meaning that town partisans may have added the inscription after its completion to bring glory to their hometown. No one really knows. “Sit in on lectures by different art historians,” Charney writes, “and half will teach that the altarpiece is by the van Eyck brothers, and half that it is by Jan van Eyck alone.”


Charney argues that the altarpiece is both a prime work of the Middle Ages — since it contains Gothic architecture, and features ornate gilding on its surface — and the first painting of the Renaissance, since it features realistic depictions of humans and the use of oil paint, major innovations at the time. “The painting both enchants the eye and provokes the mind,” Charney writes with his typical élan. Almost completely unprecedented in the history of Western art at the time, the intricate main scene shows a lamb being bled into a chalice in a lush green field of paradise in front of 170 people — 46 prophets and patriarchs, 46 apostles and clergy, 32 confessors, and 46 female saints — plus 16 angels. (Since painters of the time often received a fee based on the number of people they portrayed, this may have been an especially pricey composition.)

Each figure has a legible, unique face, including the loan pagan present, Virgil, who sports a laurel leaf crown. And that’s just one of the scenes. Others show Adam and Eve, Mary, Saint John the Baptist, and the people who are believed to have funded its creation, who are shown kneeling in prayer on the outside of the altarpiece


Around 1426 — the exact date is unknown — two Ghent residents named Elisabeth Borluut and Joos Vijd commissioned a painter to make the altarpiece for the local Church of Saint John. They were members of the local elite: Borluut came from money, and Vijd was the son of a decorated knight who rose through the ranks of Flemish society only to be found guilty, under questionable circumstances, of embezzlement. For Vijd, the grand gift may have been an attempt to win some favorable press, a tactic not unfamiliar to anyone who watched controversial Facebook cofounder Mark Zuckerberg give $100 million to the Newark schools in September.


In the 16th century, fervent Calvinists swept up in a zealous wave of iconoclasm tried on more than one occasion to break into the cathedral during the night and destroy the work, which to them represented the height of worldly, decadent Catholicism. The clever Catholics decided to dissemble the work, hiding it in a tower of the building. When the Calvinists eventually succeeded in gaining entry to the nave, aided by a battering ram, they found that the work had disappeared. Though they ransacked much of the cathedral, the “Lamb” remained unharmed.


By the 18th century, the altarpiece had become an important pilgrimage destination for any art lover’s grand tour, and even the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II came through in the latter half of the century to admire the work. While he was impressed by the skill of the painting, the emperor reportedly was maddened by the naked, and uncomfortably realistic, depictions of Adam and Eve on the work’s outermost wing panels. They were “gratuitous, pornographic, and — worse — likely to incite irrational behavior,” he believed, according to Charney. The mayor of Ghent, hearing that Joseph was considering confiscating the works, had them moved to the cathedral archives. Some eight decades later, the city would pay to create replicas of the panels with the two humans covered with sumptuous bearskins.


At the end of the 18th century, the French Republican army charged through Europe, pillaging the art and artifacts of foreign powers. “If we demand the assembly of masterpieces in Paris, it is for the honor and glory of France and for the love we feel for those very artworks,” the French Directory wrote in 1796, by way of explanation. The French general Charles Pichegru snatched the central panels of the work from Ghent in August of 1794, carting them back to Paris, where they went on display at the Louvre as one of the conquering army’s greatest treasures. Antoine-Alexandre Barbier, the official in charge of confiscating artwork in Holland and the Austrian Netherlands, told the National Convention: “Too long have these masterpieces been sullied by the gaze of serfs…. They rest today in the home of liberty and sacred equality, in the French Republic.”

They would not remain there forever. When Louis XVIII was returned to the throne after the fall of Napoleon, in 1814, he returned the panels to Ghent, where he had found safety during part of his exile. It was just one of the more than 5,000 pieces he restituted during his reign — not bad for a man that Charney characterizes as “selfish, pompous, luxurious, and indulgent,” albeit imbued with some “Enlightenment characteristics.”


While international treaties now restrict the trade in stolen artworks, there were no such worries for enterprising thieves in the 19th century, which allowed the vicar-general of the Saint Bavo Cathedral (the name of the Church of Saint John after 1540), Jacques-Joseph Le Surre, to sell off the altarpiece’s six wing panels in 1816 when the presiding bishop was out of town. The buyer, who paid an unimpressive sum of 3,000 guilders (or about $3,600 today), was Brussels dealer Lambert–John Nieuwenhuys, who then flipped the works to a Berlin–based collector named Edward Solly for 100,000 guilders ($120,000). Oddly, there is no record that Le Surre, who claimed that he sold the pieces to raise money for the bishopric, ever suffered any consequence for his rapacity.

In 1821, the Prussian king Frederick William III bought Solly’s entire collection of almost 3,000 pieces in the aim of building a Prussian National Gallery on the scale of the Louvre. The works would remain at the Kaiser Friedrich Museum until the end of the World War I, when the Allied Powers would demand the return of thousands of artworks taken by Germany in previous wars. The panels were returned to Ghent and, Charney writes, “a placard was placed in the gallery that read: ‘Taken from Germany by the Treaty of Versailles'” — an ominous marker of what was to come.


Obsessed with exacting vengeance for Germany’s losses in World War I, Hitler was quick to go after the work when he came to power in 1933. But while avenging the Treaty of Versailles was one motivation, Charney posits that another, impossibly far-fetched consideration may have been driving the führer: the notion that the altarpiece contained a secret treasure map that could lead him to the Arma Christi, the various tools used in the Passion of the Christ, including the Holy Grail. Here the book ventures far outside the art-historical mainstream, with Charney crediting the theory to Dutch author Karl Hammer, noting that it is “certainly possible.” He also shares that Hitler sent soldiers into Tibet to find a yeti (for military purposes) and to Iceland to find the magical fairy-and-giant-filled land of Thule.

More likely, Hitler wanted to accumulate as many cultural treasures as he possibly could, which he planned to house in a kulturhaupstadt (a “citywide supermuseum”) in his hometown of Linz, Austria. In any case, Hitler did indeed capture the altarpiece, seizing the work when his Wermacht occupied Belgium and secreting it in a salt mine in the mountains of Austria along with other priceless artworks. When the tide of the war began to turn, Nazi leaders ordered that the treasure-filled mine be blown up if it looked likely that it would fall into enemy hands. A team of Allied Forces operatives then parachuted into the area and helped to secure the mine, leading a force to rapidly take the stronghold as Nazi troops fled.


Having survived mobs of iconoclasts, wars, and the wiles of thieves, the Ghent Altarpiece remains “a symbol for the preservation of civilization against evil,” Charney writes. And yet, despite hundreds of years of intense study and delicate care, much remains unknown about the work. This brief digest is a mere gloss of some questions that continue to haunt the work. To put it another way, Charney is the latest in a long line of scholars who have devoted themselves to the work, but he will almost certainly not be the last.