Seeking out Van Eyck's "The Just Judges" altarpiece

Next month the Belgian city of Ghent is mounting a high-tech search for a panel of Van Eyck's masterpiece missing since 1934


A hunt is on to solve one of the most baffling art crimes, the theft of a panel from Van Eyck's celebrated "Altarpiece of the mystic lamb". The wing panel depicting "The Just Judges" was stolen from Ghent Cathedral in 1934 and the thief died just a few months later, taking his secret to the grave.

Police experts have reopened the case and believe that the missing panel is still hidden inside the Cathedral of St Bavo. Next month they hope to begin a systematic search, using modern technology to inspect possible hiding places inside the structure of the huge Gothic building.

Karel Mortier, Ghent's former Chief of Police and the man leading the hunt, told The Art Newspaper that he is now convinced there is an eighty percent chance of finding the lost panel. "My examination of all the evidence shows that the thief must have hidden 'The Just Judges' inside the cathedral", he said.

Van Eyck's "Altarpiece of the Mystic Lamb", completed in 1432, is regarded as the greatest masterpiece of early Northern European painting. Although the five central panels and eight double-sided wing panels were dispersed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the polyptych was once again reassembled in its original chapel after World War I.

The theft took place on the night of 10 to 11 April 1934, when the bottom-left section of the polyptych was taken from the Joos Vijd Chapel. Three weeks later the thief began to write a series of menacing letters to the Bishop of Ghent, demanding a ransom of BFrl million.

Conveniently, from the thief's point of view, the section of the altarpiece he had taken was sawn in two. In l8l6 it had been among the wing panels sold by the cathedral and acquired shortly afterwards by the King of Prussia. The panels ended up in the Kaiser Friedrich Museum in Berlin and in 1894 they were sawn through to separate the inside and outside paintings, so that both sides could be displayed. Berlin's panels were eventually returned to Ghent in 1920 under the Treaty of Versailles.

The stolen section of the altarpiece therefore consisted of two parts, the interior scene of "The Just Judges" and the exterior grisaille of St John the Evangelist. In order to prove his credentials, the thief sent the Bishop of Ghent a ticket for a package which was deposited at the left-luggage office of Brussels North railway station. Inside was the grisaille panel of St John. A lengthy correspondence ensued, but Bishop Coppieters resisted pressure to pay the ransom.

Later that year the thief became critically ill and on his deathbed he made a confession to a friend, Georges de Bos. The thief admitted where he had hidden documents about the case, including correspondence with the bishop, but by his death on 25 November l934 he had still not revealed the secret location of "The Just Judges". The police were then informed about the confession and the thief was identified as ArsSþne Goedertier, a fifty-eight year-old stockbroker and church sexton. Despite a major police operation, "The Just Judges" could not be found and a replica was painted by restorer Joseph Vander Veken.

More than sixty years after the theft, a new hunt is being launched for "The Just Judges". This effort, backed by the cathedral authorities, is being co-ordinated by Ghent's Centre for Art and Culture. Arrangements for the search operation are now being finalised by Ghent City Council, the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Justice.

Heading the hunt is Karel Mortier, who retired four years ago as Ghent's Chief of Police and is now the city's honorary Police Superintendent. The thirteen letters from the thief to the Bishop have been minutely examined, as well as a draft letter found after Goedertier's death saying the "The Just Judges" was hidden in a place where it could not be removed without attracting public attention. The 1943 reports of the Examining Magistrate who investigated the case have also been re-examined.

Mortier has a new theory that the thief must have had an accomplice, "It would have required two people to remove the panels from the frame and the altarpiece"; he explained. Having studied the evidence, Mortier is now convinced that "The Just Judges" is behingd wood panelling inside the cathedral. The most likely places have been narrowed down to the Choir, the 270-foot high tower and the adjacent chapter house (or possibly inside the organ).

Sophisticated equipment will be used in the search, including fibre optic probes. This should make it possible to investigate behind wooden panelling without causing damage.

Officially the Centre for Art and Culture is not yet revealing details about the operation.

However, the Centre for Art and Culture has announced plans to publicise documentary evidence about the theft, and papers from the 1930s will be exhibited with the special authority of the Public Prosecutor. This material, which includes the correspondence of the thief, will be displayed in an exhibition, "The Missing Panel of the Mystic Lamb", from 29 September to 7 January at St Peter's Abbey.

The exhibition on the search for the stolen panel has attracted support from all the key institutions, including the Diocese of Ghent, Ghent city Council, the City Archives, the Museum of fine Art in Ghent, the Royal Institute of Art Patrimony and the National Centre for Research on the Flemish Primitives. It is also being backed by the distinguished Van Eyck scholars Elisabeth Dhanens and Roger Marynissen.

Ever since the 1934 theft the lower-left panel of the polyptych has played a key role in determining the fate of the rest of the Van Eyck masterpiece. In b1940 the altarpiece had been sent to France, in an attempt to prevent it falling into the hands of the Nazis, but two years after it was seized by German troops in Pau. The Nazis then searched for "The Just Judges" in Ghent, concentrating their efforts in the cathedral crypt, and if successful they intended to present the complete altarpiece to Hitler in a triumphal ceremony. But the missing panel was never found and the polyptych was simply stored in the Fuhrer's art depot at Schloss Neuschwanstein and later sent for safekeeping to the Austrian mine at Alt Aussee.

In May 1945 American troops discovered the polyptych hidden in the salt mine and it was the first major artwork to be restituted after the war. However, had the Nazis found "The Lost Judges" and presented the entire altarpiece to Hitler, who knows what its fate might have been.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Seeking out "The Just Judges"'