Mystery of the Stolen “Judges” Panel from The Ghent Altarpiece is Still Alive in Belgium

According to the Brussels newspaper Nieuwsblad (27 January 2011), a retired police commissioner named Rudy Maes Koekelberg has a new theory about the location of the missing “Righteous Judges” panel from the Ghent Altarpiece, stolen in 1934 and never found (please see this recent ArtInfo article for the story behind the theft).

Mr. Koekelberg purchased a book about the Judges theft at a flea market thirteen years ago, while still serving in his 37-year career as police commissioner in the community of Bosch.  The book turned him into a passionate weekend detective in search of the panel.  Other part-time treasure hunters have made great progress and developed intriguing theories, such as Karel Mortier, another retired police officer, and Patrick Bernauw, and art historian and writer.  In fact, the amateur sleuths have shed far more light on the story of the stolen panel than the real police, whose investigation in the 1930s smacked to many of either ineptitude or conspiracy.

Koekelberg spent seven years searching, and came to the conclusion that the missing panel was buried in a cemetery in Laeken, a north-western suburb of Brussels.  He cites references in ransom letters sent to the Bishop of Ghent by a Belgian stock-broker called Arsène Goedertier, who is widely considered to have been the mastermind behind the theft, and who died soon after.  The ransom letters mention that the stolen panel is hidden in a public place, where it cannot be removed without attracting public attention.  Koekelberg emphasizes that Goedertier refers to the hiding place of the panel as its “resting place” and “among the angels” which suggested to him a tomb or cemetery.

Whether or not this theory has merit remains very much to be seen.  Various theorists have suggested all manner of possible locations for the missing panel, as well as rationales for the theft, from the plausible to the conspiratorial.  Some believe that the panel was stolen to prevent it from falling into the hands of the Nazis, who believed that The Ghent Altarpiece contained a coded treasure map which would lead to Catholic treasures, like the Holy Grail—which the Nazis believed would give them supernatural powers and turn the tide of the Second World War.  In 2008 an anonymous tip was called in to the Ghent police, stating that the missing panel would be found beneath the floorboards of a local residence, buried next to a skeleton.  The floor was duly dismantled, but nothing was found beneath.

The search continues for one of the great lost treasures of the art world.

For more information on The Ghent Altarpiece and the story of the theft of the Righteous Judges panel, you can visit or read Stealing the Mystic Lamb: The True Story of the World’s Most Coveted Masterpiece (PublicAffairs 2010).

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