9. The Just Judges by Jan van Eyck
This missing artwork comes with its own labyrinthine tale more suited to the pen of a mystery novelist than the brushes of an old master.
Part of the Early Netherlandish painting and Northern Renaissance art movement, Belgian painter Jan van Eyck would create The Just Judges or The Righteous Judges between 1430–32, or perhaps his brother Hubert Van Eyck no one is quite sure, as part of the lower left panel of the 12-panel Ghent Altarpiece.
On display at Saint Bavo’s Cathedral in Ghent, Belgium, it was part of The Adoration of the Lamb altarpiece. It is believed that the panel shows portraits of several contemporary figures such as the Duke of Burgundy Philip the Good, and possibly the artists Hubert and Jan van Eyck themselves.
During the night of April 10th, 1934, the panel was removed from the altarpiece, apparently with care as none of the other panels sustained any damage, and a mysterious note written in French was left in the empty frame.
The note read “Taken from Germany by the Treaty of Versailles”, thought to be in reference to the fact that the altarpiece, having been removed to Berlin by German forces during World War I, had to be returned in accordance with Article 247 of the Treaty of Versailles.
Over the following year a bizarre back and forth of letter writing between the Belgian government and the supposed thief would take place. From ransom notes demanding one million Belgian francs, which was promptly refused, to questions of ownership, in the end 11 letters would be exchanged.
In an strange act of good faith the ransomer would even return one of the panel’s two parts, a grisaille painting of St John the Baptist. Who you might ask is this thief come pen pal? Well it would only take 7 months for the truth to come out, or would it?
A stockbroker and would be politician called Arsène Goedertier summoned his lawyer Georges de Vos to his bedside after suffering a heart attack at a Catholic political rally to reveal to the world that he was in fact the illusive thief.
He claimed while lying on his deathbed that he was the only one who knew where the masterpiece was hidden and would be taking that secret with him to the grave, telling Vos “I alone know where the Mystic Lamb is. The information is in the drawer on the right of my writing table, in an envelope marked ‘mutualité.’
Upon inspecting the drawer Vos discovered carbon copies of the ransom notes, and a rather cryptic unsent note that read “It rests in a place where neither I, nor anybody else, can take it away without arousing the attention of the public.”
To this day, the location of the painting is still unknown, although it has long been speculated that it was destroyed. The panel was replaced in 1945 by Belgian copyist Jef Van der Veken, who applied a layer of wax to the copy to make sure it blended in with the altarpiece.
Enjoy the complete works of Jan van Eyck here