#180: ART OBJECTS: LOST OR STOLEN OR STRAYED / THE GHENT ALTARPIECE. The damnedest things get stolen. In August 1911, a Louvre employee named Vincenzo Peruggia stole Leonardo’s “Mona Lisa.” He was an Italian patriot who felt that the painting should rest in its country of origin, though it was Leonardo himself who brought it out of Italy when Francois I invited him to Amboise. Peruggia reportedly accomplished this feat simply by hiding in a broom closet at closing, and walking out with the stolen painting through a workman’s entrance. (It was recovered two years later when he offered to sell it to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.) This was all at least done with a certain proper air of decorum, ransom notes politely exchanged, etc.; on the other hand, when in 1994 a couple of men made off with the original of Edward Munch’s painting “The Scream,” they left a note in its place saying “Thanks for the lousy security system”—my favorite recent example of adding insult to injury.
I suppose all this is to be expected when you have something both valuable and portable; but I was struck just this morning (February 12, 2021) when I read an article in the Guardian of theft on quite a different scale. As far back as the twelfth century, Geoffrey of Monmouth suggested that the massive blocks that make up Stonehenge were actually of Welsh origin, and had been magicked into Wiltshire by the wizard Merlin. Geologically, this made sense: the dolerite bluestone blocks of Stonehenge hail from the Preseli hills of Pembrokeshire. But now, a series of excavations, some carbon dating tests, newly discovered buried stone holes and a matching stone imprint together suggest strongly that the stones may actually have stood as part of a “venerated stone circle” in Wales, very near the Preseli quarries, as much as four centuries before they were dragged off to the plains of Wiltshire. Like so many of the antiquities in English (and European) collections—the Elgin Marbles, for instance, whose longtime home in the British Museum is looking a bit precarious due to the Byzantine legalities of Brexit—Stonehenge itself may have been, well…filched. An Indian nationalist once famously said that the sun never set on the British Empire because God wouldn't trust an Englishman in the dark.
Still, this fades a bit compared with the history of the Ghent Altarpiece, completed in 1432 for the present cathedral of St. Bavo by Jan Van Eyck (and his brother Hubert, who has only, to my inexpert eye, a somewhat theoretical existence). It has, of course, suffered from overpainting and the damage of time, but it has also been referred to as the most stolen work of art in history. During World War II it had an almost peripatetic existence and saw more of Europe than your Aunt Barbara on her bridge club tour. When you consider that it’s painted on ten separate panels of oak, is over eleven feet tall and weighs more than a ton, you stop feeling indignation at its theft and only start wondering about the logistics of moving it.
Noah Charney in his book Stealing the Mystic Lamb: The True Story of the World’s Most Coveted Masterpiece (Public Affairs, 2010) goes into the history of the painting’s creation and the politics of its turbulent past. Belgium has always lain on the crossroads of Europe’s various and ambitious empires. With the invasion by Napoleon—who developed a habit of exacting works of art as reparation for the costs of wars he had himself begun—the altarpiece suffered its first removal, to the Louvre. It had already suffered dismemberment, as the panels depicting Adam and Eve were shockingly realistic, and were at one point replaced with copies of the pair wearing some strategic bearskins; indeed the various changes and removals at one point reduce Charney to doing a sum-up of which original and copied pieces were where at a certain point in the game. With Napoleon’s fall the altarpiece was returned; then came Hitler, who had learned from Napoleon’s example and had the notion to construct and stock a super-museum, housing all the world’s greatest art, in his home city of Linz. Here we are entering the period popularized by the book and film of Robert M. Edsel’s Monuments Men, genuinely the most brazen and shocking period of art theft in world history. Of the tens of thousands of stolen artworks stored at the Alt Aussee salt mine, paintings and prints and statues and furniture and tapestries and case upon case of rare books, the Ghent Altarpiece was considered the most precious of all the works recovered.
With reason. The altarpiece is certainly not the world’s first oil painting; it just as certainly is the work that, like a thunderbolt, revealed in a single early instance the range and possibilities of the beauty of the medium. Even seen at a bit of a distance, and behind glass in its current placement inside the cathedral, the altarpiece is overwhelming in its size, its microscopic detail, its bewildering range of allusion and symbol, its gorgeous color, and its enveloping, liquid, and entrancing beauty. Any even glancingly accurate description is bound to seem fulsome. Peter Schjeldahl called it “the sort of art that changes lives.” What is especially wonderful now is that it is displayed so the visitor can see it fully opened (a state previously reserved for high holy days), with its back panels, including its extraordinary Annunciation scene—visible as well. If held at gunpoint and forced to pick the most beautiful painting I’ve ever been blessed to see (these things happen), the Ghent Altarpiece would win, hands down.
On the other side of theft and age, the Altarpiece now navigates the issues of cleaning and restoration. Peter Schjeldahl’s beautiful essay on the 2010-12 project of restoration is in his excellent collection, Hot, Cold, Heavy, Light: 100 Art Writings 1988-2018 (Abrams); one end result of the project is the website Closer to Van Eyck (http://legacy.closertovaneyck.be/#) where you can view the entire altarpiece in splendid micrographic closeup. An inexpensive guidebook available from Ludion Press is The Ghent Altarpiece, by Peter Schmidt, which has a decent text and lots of lovely detail illustrations.
Alas, there’s no glory without the gore, and one dismaying aspect of the further (2019) restoration was the recovery of the “alarmingly humanoid” face of the Mystic Lamb, which had been overpainted in 1550 (https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/ghent-altarpiece-restorations-reveal-alarmingly-humanoid-face-famous-mystical-lamb-180973846/). It is indeed pretty weird, but only one tiny detail in the vast original; let’s hope that, once the spotlight is off it, we can get back to that vast and glorious whole.
A postscript. Surely one of the only art thefts that resulted in a financial bonus for the art’s rightful owners was the 1994 grab at a pair of J.M.W. Turners, on loan from the Tate Gallery in London to the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt. The loaned-out Turners had been insured for twenty four million pounds. A few years after the theft, their return was deemed unlikely, and Lloyd’s of London paid out the insurance to the Tate. This meant, of course, that Lloyd’s at that point had the title to the paintings—if returned, Lloyd’s would own them. The pay-out money was sitting in an account for a few years, when the Tate inquired how much it would cost to purchase the title to the paintings back from Lloyd’s—what Robert Hiscox, one of the insurers, called “an interesting post-race bet.” The final sum agreed on was eight million pounds, meaning, even if you allow for expenses and interest and such, a banger of a profit for the Tate, all entirely legal, when the paintings were ransomed in 2000 and 2002. What it doesn’t allow for is the almost insane complication of getting the paintings back, not just “Operation Cobalt,” as it was nicknamed, but the legal and administrative red tape, paperwork, haggling, years of suspense and the wear and tear on the nerves of everyone involved. Just how considerable this was is nicely brought across by Sandy Nairne (one of the Tate figures at the heart of the pursuit) in his book Art Theft and the Case of the Stolen Turners (Reaktion Books, 2011), which is enough to make you triply appreciative the next time you’re in an art museum, and thankful you don’t own anything worth stealing.