Shelf Life

The most wanted stolen art in history

Marketplace Staff Oct 25, 2010
Shelf Life

The most wanted stolen art in history

Marketplace Staff Oct 25, 2010


Kai Ryssdal: There’s a painting in Belgium that just might be the most significant piece of art you’ve probably never heard of. “The Ghent Altarpiece” — also called “The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb” — was painted almost 600 years ago. It’s been stolen seven times since then. More than any other masterwork.

If you happen to be within reach of your computer right now, you can have a look at it. It’s right on our homepage. [Plus, see a slideshow of “The Most Wanted Stolen Art in History”]

Art Historian Noah Charney writes about the painting and the many crimes against it in his new book, “Stealing the Mystic Lamb.” Read an excerpt from the book.

Noah Charney: Well this is a monumental triptych, a three-section altarpiece that consists of 12 individual painted oaken panels linked together in an elaborate framework.

Ryssdal: This is also, as you point out in the book, quite possibly the most — I think your phrase is — “desired” object in the history of mankind.

CHARNEY: It’s interesting that from the moment this was finished, it was the most famous painting in the European world. And it was because of a number of things that it did that no one had done before. The painter, Jan van Eyck, in this painting, was the first to paint monumental work. This is huge; it’s 14.5 by 11.5 feet, and it weighs two tons, which makes its many thefts particularly impressive. It’s the first to use an intricate microscopic level of detail, like the effect of water seen through glass, the light reflecting in a horse’s eye, the tanically-identifiable plants, which no one had done before. He used disguised symbolism, so in terms of the history of Catholicism and Catholic mysticism, it’s very important.

Ryssdal: Why did people steal this thing so much?

CHARNEY: Not only was it the most famous painting in Europe when it was completed, but there was a cumulative series of wars that passed over the territory that was known as Flanders and is now Belgium. So the painting was stolen by invading armies on a number of occasions, as well as by individuals. And then ultimately, in the Second World War, this was the number one work of art that the Allied monuments and fine arts officers were hunting because it had been stolen by the Nazi art theft unit, the ERR. It was destined to be the centerpiece of Hitler’s planned super-museum. And the reason it was so desired is at first for the greatness of the work of art itself, but then simply the fact of it having been desired by so many different people over so many centuries. There was this cumulative urge to possess what no one else had been able to retain.

Ryssdal: It almost makes sense that armies would want to steal a painting like this, or other great works, because they can claim it and take it and display it. But in a more general sense, the theft of art, specifically high-profile art like this, almost makes no sense. It’s not like there’s a secondary market where you can sell the thing.

CHARNEY: Well you’re right. One of the things that is interesting is the misconception that the general public has — through no fault of their own, based on perpetuation of both media and fiction — that most art crime involves criminal collectors. And in reality, it’s actually much more sinister. Since the Second World War, the majority of art crimes are involved with organized crime syndicates. And the criminals have learned that trying to sell the work of art is nearly impossible, so rather than looking for the buyer, criminal organizations have begun to use stolen art as a sort of tool, a chip, to use in barter or collateral deals with other organized crime groups; trading stolen art for other goods like drugs and firearms.

Ryssdal: So this is kind of down on the economic weeds, but how do you set the price point for a work of art that you, organized crime group A, wants to barter for drugs and guns with organized crime group B? How do they figure that out?

CHARNEY: Well the price is usually set at 7 to 10 percent of its estimated legitimate value. But quite often, the value is actually broadcasted by the media, because there’s such a pleasure in the media reporting these high prices for which art sells at auction, that the announcement that a $100 million Caravaggio has been stolen. That newspaper that has that headline is what criminals will use to say, “A ha. This painting that I just stole is worth $100 million. Therefore I can probably get $7 million to $10 million on the black market.”

Ryssdal: Noah Charney’s book is called “Stealing the Mystic Lamb.” It’s about a piece of art called “The Ghent Altarpiece,” also known as “The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb,” hence the title. Noah, thanks a lot.

CHARNEY: Thanks for having me.

Ryssdal: Part of the Mystic Lamb — one whole panel of it, actually — is still missing. To hear what me and Noah talk about might have happened to it, see the audio link above in our links box. And
read an excerpt from Noah Charney’s book “Stealing the Mystic Lamb.”

Plus, see Noah Charney’s list of the most stolen artworks that are still missing.

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