Art’s perfect theft: the `Ghent Altarpiece’

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GHENT, BELGIUM (AP) - The main suspect in the legendary art heist is said to have whispered with his dying breath: “Only I know where the `Adoration’ is…”

More than seven decades later, the whereabouts of a panel belonging to one of Western art’s defining works, the “Adoration of the Mystic Lamb,” also known as the “Ghent Altarpiece,” remains a mystery.

If the stunning heist of Picasso, Monet and Matisse paintings in Rotterdam, Netherlands, last month focused attention on the murky world of art theft, the gothic Saint Bavo cathedral in Ghent has been at the center of a crime that has bedeviled the art world for decades.

“The Just Judges” panel of the Van Eyck brothers’ multi-panel Gothic masterpiece hasn’t been seen since 1934, when chief suspect Arsene Goedertier suffered a stroke at a political rally and died after murmuring those fateful words to a confidant.

The theft has kept the country enthralled ever since, with its heady mix of priceless art and scintillating detective story.

Ghent was hit by two thefts on the night of April 10, 1934: `’One was a wheel of cheese,” said detective Jan De Kesel. “The other was the panel.”

That slowed up the investigation of the art theft, in which a minor panel of the “Adoration of the Mystic Lamb” representing St. John the Baptist, was also lifted.

`’Don’t laugh,” said De Kesel, one of a long line of detectives searching for the lost work: “It was 1934, there was an economic depression _ and the wheel of cheese had priority.”

The probe went nowhere until the St. John the Baptist panel was found that year in the luggage claim of a Brussels train station wrapped in brown paper. It wasn’t the sign of a guilty criminal conscience _ just an extortion ploy proving that the thief, or thieves, had “The Just Judges.” A note demanded a million Belgian francs, a massive sum at the time, for the panel’s return.

The local bishop produced only a fraction of the ransom demand and more extortion letters followed.

Then Goedertier died, yielding another clue in his apparent confession: `’In my office … drawer … closet.” There, copies of the old extortion letters and the draft of a new one were found.

Adding to the theft’s mystique, this last one read: `’`The Just Judges’ are in a place where neither I nor anyone else can take it without drawing the public’s attention.” Police also found indecipherable drawings possibly pointing to a hiding place.

Ever since, Belgium has been in the grip of a decades-long treasure hunt, one that has drawn detectives of every ilk: cab drivers, computer scientists, lawyers, retired police inspectors, among others.

From divining rods to endoscopes to SS Nazi search parties, it has all been to no avail. Overanxious amateur sleuths have even drilled holes in important monuments on the hunch the panel might be there.

One of the more popular theories is that Goedertier, a stockbroker, may never have taken the panel out of the cathedral, but hidden it somewhere inside. But lifting every pane or tile in the massive St. Bavo would carry a prohibitive cost and risk damaging the historic edifice.

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