Sunday, 19 September 2004
The search for Van Eyck's 'Judges' By Michael S. Rose

A Flemish masterpiece is at the center of an elusive mystery, one that has busied amateur sleuths for seventy years.

(GHENT, Belgium) — It has been called the world’s most stolen masterpiece, and a relatively recent theft has long been hailed Belgium’s greatest unsolved mystery, one that still has amateur sleuths tracking clues nearly seventy years later. The 24-panel polyptych painted by Flemish master Jan Van Eyck is known to the world as “The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb.” Art historians consider the 15th century altarpiece one of the most influential oil paintings in Christendom. The famous work boasts an unrivaled realism that has retained its luminous colors over the centuries.

This Fall, a retired Flemish taxi driver kept Belgians on tenterhooks when he announced—anonymously—that he would reveal the whereabouts of the long lost “Just Judges,” a side panel depicting ten horsemen en route to venerate the Mystic Lamb. The Just Judges panel was stolen from Ghent’s St. Bavo Cathedral on the night of April 10, 1934.

Gaston de Roeck, who fancied himself a clever detective along the lines of a Hercule Poirot, posted credible tips at his website playing upon ransom notes sent to the Bishop of Ghent in the months following the grand art theft. De Roeck cloaked his true identity with the nom de plume “D.U.A.,” the same acronym used by the extortionist seven decades earlier.

In an anonymous interview with the Belgian magazine Humo, De Roeck hinted that the recovery of the 5-1/2 x 6-1/3-foot stolen panel was “a mere issue of loosening four screws.” On October 4, 2002, after months of mysterious build-up and years of hunting down clues, De Roeck led police to the parish church of St. Gertrude in the small town of Wetteren, about ten miles outside of the medieval city of Ghent.

De Roeck was convinced the stolen panel was hidden in a wooden wall behind the altar of this church where the extortionist once served as organist. The police search, however, turned up nothing. “There are no more clues,” De Roeck declared on Belgian television. “I have no idea where it could be. This was to be the climax.”

The retired taxi driver is the latest in a long line of amateur sleuths who have failed to track down the Just Judges. The long-enduring mystery has spawned dozens of theories about the theft and at least ten books on the topic. Patrick Bernauw is author of two such books (Mysteries of the Mystic Lamb, 1991, and The Just Judges, 1992). The notorious theft, he told CWR, “is Belgium’s Monster of Loch Ness,” but he stressed that it is also one of Belgium’s greatest “true crime stories.”

The mystery has captivated Bernauw since he was a child, when he remembers reading a comic book version of the crime. “For me, it is in the first place a wonderful story.” He explained, however, that most prominent researchers and sleuths of the theft are somewhat obsessed by Van Eyck’s masterpiece. They also understand that the sleuth who can solve the mystery will be catapulted to the status of a national hero. The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb has been compared to Britain’s Crown Jewels as a primary symbol of Belgium’s cultural heritage.

Since 1956 Karl Mortier, Ghent’s former chief-of-police, has dedicated himself to the search for the lost Judges. Together with the late journalist Noël Kerkhaert, he authored The Dossier on the Mystic Lamb: The Search for the Just Judges. In a BBC interview with British crime novelist Minette Walters, he referred to the theft as the art crime of the century: “In all the years preceding the theft…there were all sorts of circumstances surrounding the panels—thefts, fire, looting, iconoclasm—and it’s amazing that during those 500 years the [painting] has always been recovered and remained intact.” The panel of the Just Judges now remains the only exception.

How it happened

Mortier, a scathing critic of the police’s bungling of the investigation, said that when Ghent police arrived at the scene of the crime, the church was full of “the sort of people who go to look at scenes of disaster.” Due to the unruly crowd, the police neglected even dusting for fingerprints and left without establishing the basic facts in the case.

All anyone knew was that two panels had been removed from the polyptych—the richly detailed portrait of the Just Judges and a grisaille of “St. John the Baptist with the Lamb,” which was located on the rear side of the more important multi-colored interior panel. The Belgian newspapers treated the burglary as one of the biggest news stories of the year. Details of “suspicious circumstances” and reconstructions of the crime were splashed across their front pages for months.

The police investigation was going nowhere when the Bishop of Ghent received the first of 13 ransom notes demanding 1 million Belgian francs, the equivalent to $33,000 at the time, for the safe return of the panels. The extortionist indicated that he would return the Baptist panel as proof that he had the more valuable Just Judges. When the bishop agreed, through a newspaper ad, to meet the demands, the mysterious thief sent a left-luggage claim ticket from Brussels’ North Station, which led police to recover the first panel. It was found undamaged, carefully wrapped in black oil cloth and brown paper.

The bishop, pressured by civil authorities who claimed that the cathedral altarpiece was actually owned by the Belgian government, refused to turn over the one million francs. The next typewritten letter by the man calling himself D.U.A. showed his anger. He chided the bishop for breaking an agreement “at the very moment when we are negotiating a relatively small ransom in proportion to the value of the most precious painting in the world.”

That left the police investigation stalled with no leads.

The man behind the theft

Nothing more was discovered about the elusive D.U.A. until seven months later when Arsène Goedertier, a 57-year-old stockbroker, collapsed of a heart-attack at a political rally in Brussels. As he lay dying, Goedertier summoned his attorney Georges de Vos, to whom he uttered his famous last words: “I alone know where the Just Judges are to be found—my study, keys, cupboard.” Then he died of heart failure.

When De Vos searched the dead man’s house in Wetteren, he discovered carbon copies of the 13 typed ransom notes, and a 14th addressed to the bishop, which had not yet been mailed. There was no indication where the Just Judges could be found. Only a single cryptic line in the unsent note hinted at its whereabouts: “It’s in a place where neither I nor anyone else can recover it without drawing attention.”

Goedertier’s widow, who insisted that her husband was innocent of the crime, indicated to police that the typewriter found in the dead man’s study had been rented. According to evidence that Bernauw has seen, Goedertier used a false identity when renting the typewriter: Arseen Van Damme. Initials A.V.D. “In Latin the U and the V are the same letter,” noted Bernauw. “D.U.A. is an anagram of the initials A.V.D.” That, he said, is a possible explanation for the mysterious pseudonym.

In the ensuing months, journalists and amateur investigators gleaned plenty about the life and personality of Arsène Goedertier. Relatives indicated that he was a megalomaniac who always made a point of emphasizing how wealthy he was. His wife also revealed that, much to her annoyance, he was an avid reader of detective novels. Most instructive is that Goedertier was a fan of Arsène Lupin, the “gentleman thief” of Maurice LeBlanc’s mystery novels. Arsène, of course, was also Goedertier’s first name, and for him it seemed to be a coincidence-with-a-meaning. “He had read the novel L’aiguille creuse (The Hollow Needle) several times,” said Bernauw. “The book is about art thefts. I believe that Goedertier found some inspiration in the novel.” Just as Lupin would always leave a trail of coded messages after his thefts, Goedertier used similar coded language in his ransom notes.

By all accounts, Goedertier was an eccentric character who apparently wanted the world to know that he was clever enough to have pulled off the art crime of the century. But some researchers suggest that, although Goedertier most definitely typed and mailed the ransom notes, he was not the thief, or at the very least, he did not act alone.

Part of the puzzle that still baffles most sleuths is his lack of motive. Records indicate that he was in a very secure financial position, having more than three million francs in the bank at the time of his death. It is doubtful that money was his motive. Some suggest rather a sort of “symbolic revenge.” Goedertier is said to have been angry at the Catholic Church because, when Goedertier was a boy his father resigned from a high-paying job in the Church for ideological reasons and ended up as a sacristan where he earned a mere pittance. This turn of events prevented his father from sending the young Arsène to a good school. According to this supposition, Goedertier is believed to have held a grudge about that incident that he later took out against the bishop by an elaborately staged art theft. That too seems far-fetched, especially considering that Goedertier was a leading light in the local politics of the Catholic-led conservative party. Possibly the most compelling hypothesis is that he simply indulged in criminal fantasies of a staggering proportion.

Though authorities in Ghent closed the case in 1937, concluding that Goedertier was the thief and that he acted alone, decades later Mortier discovered that the extortionist suffered from a rare eye disease that made it difficult for him to see at night. It would have been impossible, reasons Mortier, for Goedertier to pull off the theft in a dark cathedral at night on his own: “He must have had at least one accomplice.”

Bernauw dismisses the rare eye disease as irrelevant yet agrees with Mortier that the extortionist did not act alone. Bernauw, in fact, goes one step further. He believes that foul play was indicated in Goedertier’s untimely death just seven months after the theft. “I believe he was murdered,” said Bernauw, “and I’m not the only one.” He explained that two of Goedertier’s most likely accomplices, Achiel De Swaef and Oscar Lievens, died during the month following Goedertier’s death. Nevertheless, Ghent police failed to conduct homicide inquiries into any of these untimely deaths.

No shortage of theories

Bernauw holds to what has become known as the “Nazi plot.” Adolph Hitler, who came into power in Germany just a year before the theft, was interested in the Mystic Lamb for occult reasons. “Hitler dreamed of an ‘Arian religion’ that could compete with Christianity,” explained Bernauw, “and he used the Mystic Lamb in this context.” During World War II, the rest of the altarpiece was captured by the Nazis when they invaded Belgium. They held the Mystic Lamb in custody in the salt mines of Alt Aussée near Salzburg, Austria until 1945 when General Patton’s men uncovered the cache propped up against crates in a room deep underground, where the mineshafts were filled with dynamite.

During the war, Heinrich Himmler sent high ranking SS-officer “Kulturforscher” Henry Koehn to Belgium with the sole task of locating the Just Judges. “I believe that the true reason for stealing the Just Judges,” said Bernauw, “had something to do with the fascination of the topnazis for the Mystic Lamb.” Bernauw’s theory: Goedertier and his accomplices De Swaef and Lievens worked for a Nazi agent and were later killed when they hid the stolen panel for him.

The Nazi plot theory, though it may sound sensational, is one of the most plausible theories put forth. One book lays out a far-fetched theory involving the Knights Templar and the quest for the Philosopher’s stone. Another describes the painting as a secret map leading to the Holy Grail.

Recent efforts to uncover the stolen panel

The number of theories involving the theft of the Mystic Lamb are rivaled only by the number of those that hypothesize where the Just Judges is now hidden, though obviously all of these hypotheses have thus far been found wanting.

In addition to De Roeck’s recent Internet folly—probably given the most sensational publicity thus far—Karl Mortier publicly theorized that the missing panel was hidden in the Ghent cathedral and in fact had never left there. There would seem to be some historical precedence for this. In the 16th century the entire altarpiece was hidden in the cathedral’s bell tower to prevent its destruction during the Calvinist revolt. In 1995, Mortier’s hypothesis inspired a hi-tech search of the Gothic church. Art sleuths wielding miniature laser-guided cameras drilled microscopic holes through the wood paneling of the church’s walls. But the expensive search yielded nothing.

In 2001, Christiaan Noppe, a policeman from the Belgian port city of Antwerp, expounded another theory that would supposedly reveal the hiding place. Noppe is convinced that the stolen panel is hidden in the coffin of King Albert I, who died in a climbing accident during the year of the theft. King Albert lies in burial at the crypt of the Belgian Royal Family’s palace at Laeken, just outside Brussels. According to a report in London’s Telegraph (Sept. 3, 2001):

Noppe studied the postmarks on the envelopes, and traced the five post offices from which the letters had been sent. He then sat down with a map of Belgium and traced straight lines between the courthouses in Antwerp and Brussels, and between the churches of John the Baptist in the two cities. Noppe then connected St. Bavo, which used to be called St. John, to Goedertier’s home in Wetteren. The post offices used by Goedertier all lie along these lines, says Noppe, which converge at the Royal Crypt.

Goedertier’s personality seems to indicate that he was the type of character who might just devise such an intricate puzzle and then lay clues in order to confound a cadre of sleuths who would pore over his Lupinesque coded language in hopes of attaining Belgium’s Holy Grail. To date, the stolen panel of the Just Judges continues to mock the industrious sleuths. It seems their theories are doomed to yield little more than getting their names into the Belgian press—or in Noppe’s case, spawning a book contract in which he’ll be able to set out his hypothesis for posterity.

More Arts and Culture
Jan Van Eyck's Just Judges panel was stolen from Ghent’s St. Bavo Cathedral on the night of April 10, 1934.

Some believe that Adolph Hitler's Nazi's were behind the theft of the Just Judges panel.

Karl Mortier theorizes that the missing panel is hidden in the Ghent cathedral and in fact had never left there.
“I believe that the true reason for stealing the Just Judges,” said Bernauw, “had something to do with the fascination of the topnazis for the Mystic Lamb.”

When De Vos searched the dead man’s house in Wetteren, he discovered carbon copies of the 13 typed ransom notes.
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