Is This The World's Most Coveted Painting? The Ghent Altarpiece is one of the world's most famous — and most frequently stolen paintings. Not bad for a monumental work of art that's the size of a barn door and the weight of two elephants.
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Is This The World's Most Coveted Painting?

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Is This The World's Most Coveted Painting?

Is This The World's Most Coveted Painting?

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GUY RAZ, host:

In the small chapel in Saint Bavo's Cathedral in the Belgian city of Ghent, you can find one of the world's most famous and sought-after paintings. It's called the "Adoration of the Mystic Lamb," but it's better known as the "Ghent Altarpiece."

Mr. NOAH CHARNEY (Author, "Stealing the Mystic Lamb: The True Story of the World's Most Coveted Masterpiece"): It's an absolutely enormous monumental triptych consisting of 12 painted open panels, many of them painted on both sides.

RAZ: That's art historian Noah Charney. And it's safe to say, like many before him, he's obsessed with this painting. It consists of 24 scenes that depict a pilgrimage through heaven.

Mr. CHARNEY: You can see individual hairs of varying colors on the beard of John the Baptist, for instance. You can see dirt under fingernails. You can see soil and grass stains on the soles of the feet of pilgrims.

RAZ: The painting is attributed to the Flemish artist Jan van Eyck. He finished it in 1432. But parts of it may also have been painted by his brother Hubert. And unlike any other painting in the world, the "Ghent Altarpiece" has been stolen, vandalized or held for ransom at least seven times; most recently during the Second World War. And a part of it is still missing.

Noah Charney tells the story of the altarpiece in his new book. It's called "Stealing the Mystic Lamb."

Mr. CHARNEY: This painting is arguably the single, most influential painting ever made, and that may sound like a very big statement.

RAZ: Right.

Mr. CHARNEY: But because it's the first great oil painting, it influenced oil painting for centuries to come, the first great panel painting of the Renaissance. The monumentality of it and the complexity of it fascinated people from the moment it was painted. But there's also this sense that I would call cumulative desire. The very fact that it was coveted by so many people - the number one target of Denon, the first director of Louvre Museum, the number one target of Hitler - all these reasons bound up together to render this quite possibly the single most coveted artwork in history.

RAZ: For the first of 150 years of its existence, it sits in a church in Ghent, in relative peace and quiet. And then towards the end of the 16th century, the real story of what starts to happen to this painting begins. It's eventually stolen by soldiers during the French Revolution. It's taken parts of it or taken to pairs, and displayed at the Louvre, then repatriated after the end of the Napoleonic Wars.

In the early 19th century, some of the panels are effectively stolen by a vicar at the church and sold to a German collector. They go back to the church in Ghent after the First World War, under the Treaty of Versailles. And then in 1934, one of the panels is stolen and it's never been found. Do you think it's out there?

Mr. CHARNEY: I do. This is the enduring mystery that really is part of the popular cultural awareness of the people of Ghent still to this day. In 1934, this one panel was stolen in the night and was first thought that this was a political theft because the thief or thieves left a note, pins to the altarpiece where the panel had been, saying: Taken from Germany by the Treaty of Versailles.

It was thought that this was a pro-German nationalistic act of retribution. But then, the first of 13 ransom notes came to the bishop's office at Ghent, and the bishop would not comply. The police took over the negotiations. And after 13 ransom letters were sent back and forth, the police gave up. They had no leads. They had a very strange investigation that smacked too many of conspiracy or cover-up.

For instance, when the police first arrived at the crime scene in 1934, they got there late because they had been investigating the theft of cheese from a local cheese shop. And after, they took everything in, looked for clues, which by this time had been obliterated by crowds of people flocking to see the missing panel. They returned to the cheese shop, deeming the theft of the cheese of more urgency than the theft of this piece of their national patrimony.

RAZ: I'm speaking with Noah Charney. His new book is called "Stealing the Mystic Lamb." It's about Jan van Eyck's famous painting known as the "Ghent Altarpiece."

Noah, I should mention that you, aside from being an art historian at the American University in Rome, you also run a foundation that is focused on finding stolen artwork and researching it. What's your theory? Where do you think it might be?

Mr. CHARNEY: It's one of the iconic art thefts in history, and there are all sorts of odd and fascinating conspiracy theories about why the panel would be stolen because the ransom demand itself was not for a high enough amount of money to suggest that money was the main motivation.

Some people think that it was stolen - this may sound very silly, but in fact, the Nazis and Hitler in particular were absolutely convinced that the occult and the supernatural was real. And one theory runs that the altarpiece's panel was stolen in 1934 to prevent it from being stolen eventually by the Nazis, and it was stolen by the Nazis in World War II...

RAZ: It was, yeah.

Mr. CHARNEY: ...in order to keep a key panel out of Hitler's hands because this painting contained a coated treasure map to Catholic iconic relics, the Arma Christi, the Instruments Jesus Christ's Passion, that would grant supernatural powers to the possessor. And that may sound like absolutely crazy to us now, but...

RAZ: Maybe like the next Dan Brown novel.

Mr. CHARNEY: Well, it's based on reality, and the Indiana Jones films, too, are based on a real Nazi research unit called the Ahnenerbe, which was essentially a supernatural research unit that was investigating, looking for the Holy Grail and the Spear of Destiny, the Arch of the Covenant, and some think stole the "Ghent Altarpiece" because they thought it contained this treasure map.

RAZ: Hitler was obsessed with this painting, and as you say, the Nazis did, in fact, steal it and they held it in a salt mine in Austria throughout the Second World War as the war was coming to an end and the Germans realized they were losing. They were very close to destroying it. How was it saved?

Mr. CHARNEY: That's perhaps the most dynamic and cinematic of the stories. It was the number one object chased after by both Herman Goering, who was stealing literally thousands of masterpieces for his personal collection, and Hitler wanted it as the centerpiece for his planned super museum at Linz, Austria, his boyhood town.

And it was eventually saved through heroism on the part of some unlikely sources; the heroism of Austrian miners working for the resistance through the adventures of commando team of Austrian double agents who were parachuted in to try to use guerrilla tactics to prevent the destruction of the mine by the local SS Schouliter(ph), who was determined to blow up all of the thousands of masterpieces if they couldn't be defended against the allies.

And then the good fortune and detective work of two Allied monuments men with a third army under General Patton. And there was this race on the one hand with the allies trying to get to the mine before the local SS could blow it up with the Austrian double agents working with the Austrian miners in the resistance trying to delay the detonation of it.

RAZ: Oh, wow.

Mr. CHARNEY: And it was very close to every one of those works being completely destroyed.

RAZ: How close?

Mr. CHARNEY: But in the end, it was saved.

RAZ: How close?

Mr. CHARNEY: Probably within a couple of days.

RAZ: Wow.

Mr. CHARNEY: Some sources say within a couple of hours.

RAZ: So, Noah, today, you can go to the church in Ghent and see this painting, right? I mean, it is now, we hope, safe and sound.

Mr. CHARNEY: It is. It's been moved to a different chapel and it's currently being restored and it's absolutely spectacular to see in person.

RAZ: How many times have you seen it?

Mr. CHARNEY: I've been very fortunate to see it quite a few times, most recently just in September when I went there. And it stirs me each time. And each time I see it, I notice something new. For instance, I think that it may be the first work of the pre-modern period to show someone laughing, which I had never noticed before. So, it constantly surprises me.

RAZ: That's Noah Charney. He's the author of "Stealing the Mystic Lamb," a book about the "Ghent Altarpiece." You can see images of the painting at our website, npr.org.

Noah Charney, thank you so much.

Mr. CHARNEY: Thanks for having me.

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