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In Search of the Just Judges March 18, 2003

It has been called the world's most frequently stolen masterpiece, and a relatively recent theft has long been hailed as Belgiums greatest unsolved mystery--one that still has amateur sleuths tracking clues, nearly 70 years after the crime.

The 24-panel polyptych painted by the 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 work boasts an unrivaled realism, and has retained its luminous colors over the centuries.

This fall, a retired Flemish taxi driver put Belgians on tenterhooks when he announced--working anonymously, at first, to build up an air of mystery--that he would reveal the whereabouts of the long lost "Just Judges," a side panel of the masterpiece depicting ten horsemen en route to venerate the Mystic Lamb. The "Just Judges" panel was stolen from Ghents St. Bavo Cathedral on the night of April 10, 1934.

Gaston de Roeck, who fancied himself a clever detective following in the footsteps of the fictional Hercule Poirot, posted credible tips at his website, basing his theories upon ransom notes sent to the Bishop of Ghent in the months following the famous art theft. De Roeck cloaked his true identity with the nom de plume D.U.A."--the same acronym that had been used by the extortionist who sought to collect a ransom for the "Just Judges" seven decades earlier. In an anonymous interview with the Belgian magazine Humo, De Roeck hinted that the recovery of the stolen panel, which is over 5 by 6 feet, would be a simple matter once its location was known; it was, he said, "a mere issue of loosening four screws."

On October 4, 2002, after hunting down clue for years, and building up suspense in his audience for months, De Roeck led police to the parish church of St. Gertrude in the small town of Wetteren, about 10 miles outside the medieval city of Ghent. De Roeck was convinced that the stolen panel was hidden in a wooden wall behind the altar of this church, where the extortionist who approached the bishop in 1934 once served as organist. The police search, however, turned up nothing. "There are no more clues," De Roeck admitted 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 enduring mystery has spawned dozens of theories about the theft, and at least ten books are available 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 Belgiums Loch Ness monster," but he stressed that it is also one of Belgiums greatest "true crime stories."

The mystery of the panel's disappearance has captivated Bernauw since he was a child, when he remembers reading a comic-book account of the crime. "For me it is, first of all, a wonderful story," he explained. Bernauw says, however, that most of the prominent researchers and sleuths who have studied the theft have other motivations. Some are obsessed by Van Eycks masterpiece itself. Others understand that anyone 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 Britains Crown Jewels as the preeminent symbol of Belgiums cultural heritage.

Since 1956 Karl Mortier, Ghents former police chief, has dedicated himself to the search for the lost Just 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 crime novelist Minette Walters, he referred to the theft as "the art crime of the century." Mortier pointed out that the sensational impact of the theft stems in part from the turbulent history of the Mystic Lamb:

In all the years preceding the theft, there were all sorts of circumstances surrounding the panels--thefts, fire, looting, iconoclasm--and its amazing that during those 500 years the work has always been recovered and remained intact.

It was intact, that is, until the disappearance of the Just Judges.

HOW IT HAPPENED

Mortier, who is now scathing in his criticism of the police officials who have conducted the investigation, reports that when Ghent police arrived at the scene of the crime in 1934, immediately after the theft was reported, the church was full of "the sort of people who go to look at scenes of disaster." Allowing themselves to be constrained by the unruly crowd (instead of using their authority to establish order), the police neglected even to dust the area for fingerprints. They left the scene without having established the basic facts in the case. Consequently, in the first days after the theft, all that 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. Belgian newspapers treated the burglary as one of the most important news stories of the year. Details of the "suspicious circumstances" surrounding the theft, and efforts to reconstruct the crime, were splashed across their front pages for months.

However, the police investigation was stalled, with no apparent leads, when the Bishop of Ghent received the first in what would be a serious 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 John the Baptist panel as proof that he had the more valuable Just Judges. When the bishop agreed (by placing a newspaper ad) to meet the demands, the mysterious thief sent him a left-luggage claim ticket from Brussels North Station, which led police to recover the first panel. The John the Baptist panel was found undamaged, carefully wrapped in black oil cloth and brown paper. The bishop--under heavy pressure from civil authorities, who claimed that the cathedral altarpiece was actually owned by the Belgian government--refused to turn over the 1 million francs. The next typewritten letter from 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."

Thus the negotiations between the bishop and the extortionist broke down. Once again the police investigation was stalled. 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 mans house in Wetteren, he discovered carbon copies of the 13 typed ransom notes, and a 14th letter addressed to the bishop, which had not yet been mailed. But there was no indication where the Just Judges could be found. Only a single cryptic line in the unsent note hinted at its whereabouts: "Its 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. "In Latin the U and the V are the same letter," observes Bernauw. "D.U.A. is an anagram of the initials A.V.D." That, he notes, is one possible explanation for the mysterious pseudonym. In the months after his death, 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 telling, perhaps, is the fact that Goedertier was a fan of Arsène Lupin, the "gentleman thief" of Maurice LeBlancs 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 Laiguille Creuse (The Hollow Needle) several times," says 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 definitely typed and mailed the ransom notes, he was not the original thief--or that if he did steal the Just Judges, he did not act alone. One aspect of the puzzle that still baffles most detectives is the absence of a clear motive for Goedertier to steal the panel. Records indicate that he was in a very secure financial position, with than 3 million francs in the bank at the time of his death. So it is doubtful that money was his motive.

Some analysts suggest instead that Goedertier was intent on extracting a sort of symbolic revenge. He 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, earning a mere pittance. This turn of events prevented his father from sending the young Arsène to a good school. According to this hypothesis, Goedertier held a grudge, and eventually took his revenge against the bishop with this elaborately staged art theft. But that explanation 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.

For official purposes, law-enforcement authorities in Ghent closed the case in 1937, concluding that Goedertier was the thief and that he acted alone. But 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. So the former police chief concludes: "He must have had at least one accomplice." Bernauw dismisses the eye disease as irrelevant, yet agrees with Mortier that the extortionist did not act alone. In fact Bernauw, 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," says Bernauw. "And Im not the only one." He explained that two of the men deemed most likely to have been Goedertiers accomplices, Achiel De Swaef and Oscar Lievens, also died during the month following Goedertier's death. Oddly, Ghent police failed to conduct homicide inquiries into any of these untimely deaths. NO SHORTAGE OF THEORIES

Bernauw leans toward an explanation of the crime that has come to be known as the "Nazi plot" theory. 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," explains Bernauw, "and he used the Mystic Lamb in this context." He says: "I believe that the true reason for stealing the Just Judges had something to do with the fascination of the top Nazis for the Mystic Lamb." The Nazi fascination with the altarpiece is a matter of record. During World War II, the remaining panels of the altarpiece were captured by the Nazis when they invaded Belgium, and taken from the cathedral. Heinrich Himmler sent high ranking SS-officer Kulturforscher Henry Koehn to Belgium with the sole task of locating the missing Just Judges panel. The Nazis held the Mystic Lamb in custody in the salt mines of Alt Aussée, near Salzburg, until 1945, when General George Patton's troops uncovered the cache propped up against crates in a room deep underground, where the mineshafts were filled with dynamite.

Bernauws theory is that 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 hypothesis, sensational as it sounds, is one of the more plausible theories put forth to explain the theft. One book on the crime lays out a remarkable theory involving the Knights Templar and the quest for the Philosophers Stone. Another describes the painting as a secret map leading to the Holy Grail.

Recent recovery efforts

The number of scenarios sketched out to explain the theft of the Mystic Lamb is matched only by the number of theories about where the Just Judges panel is now hidden. To date, obviously, whenever those theories have been tested, they have been found wanting.

In addition to De Roecks recent internet folly--which probably received more sensational publicity than any previous effort to locate the panel--Karl Mortier has theorized that the missing panel was still hidden in the Ghent cathedral and in fact had never left the building. There is some historical precedent for that theory; in the 16th century the entire altarpiece was hidden in the cathedral's bell tower to protect it from destruction during the Calvinist revolt of that era. In 1995, Mortiers hypothesis inspired a hi-tech search through the Gothic building. Art detectives 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, put forth 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's body now lies in the crypt of the Belgian royal family's palace at Laeken, just outside Brussels. According to a report in Londons Telegraph:

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 Goedertiers home in Wetteren. The post offices used by Goedertier all lie along these lines, says Noppe, which converge at the Royal Crypt.

Goedertiers personality seems to indicate that he was the type of character who might devise just such an intricate puzzle, and then lay clues in order to test the mettle of detectives who would pore over his coded language. But the Noppe theory has not been put to the test. Indeed it seems unlikely that Noppe's suggestions will produce anything more than a lucrative book contract, and one more theory added to the ever-growing supply. The unsolved mystery of the stolen Just Judges continues to mock the most industrious sleuths of Belgium.

[AUTHOR ID] Michael S. Rose is the author of Ugly as Sin and Goodbye, Good Men.