On 11 April 1934, sexton Van Volsem unsuspectingly began his morning round in the cathedral. It was only a few hours later that he noticed that the lock on the door to Vijd’s chapel had been forced. With a beating heart and afraid of what he would find, Van Volsem opened the door, entered the chapel and came to the terrible discovery that the Just Judges and John the Baptist panels were gone. On the altarpiece's frame there was a note with the text "Taken from Germany by the Treaty of Versailles" written in French. In great haste, the sexton ran to the office of Canon Van den Gheyn, who in turn alerted the police. Commissioner Patijn came to the scene to investigate the incident and found that the iron hinges, which had held the wings in place, had been removed in order to take the panels out of their frames. Forty years earlier, the panels had been in the possession of the Kaiser Friedrich Museum in Berlin, and in 1894 they had been sawn in half lengthwise so that both sides could be displayed at once. This intervention had made it easier to steal them.
The police did not find any fingerprints or traces of the perpetrator(s). They did not disclose the investigations for a long time, even though the theft immediately became front page news and shook the nation. The silence was broken on 30 April 1934, nineteen days after the theft, when the bishop of Ghent received a ransom demand for one million Belgian francs. If the church authorities did not pay the ransom, the stolen panels would be destroyed. The letter was signed with the initials D.U.A. The note that was left at the crime scene created the impression that the theft was a German act of revenge, but it turned out to be a diversionary tactic.
Bishop Coppieters was willing to pay the ransom, but did not receive permission from the public prosecutor and the Minister of Justice. Nevertheless, he ostensibly cooperated and continued negotiations with D.U.A. In order to show his goodwill, the ransomer sent a receipt for the luggage storage in the Brussels-North station together with his third letter. In return for the receipt, the storage clerk handed over a large rectangular package. It turned out to be the panel of John the Baptist! The clerk remembered that the person who had delivered the package was a man of about fifty with a pointed beard. The police, who considered the return of the panel to be a sign of weakness, now wanted to close the door on the perpetrator.
A few days later, an envelope arrived containing a letter with instructions and half a newspaper page. The person who would come to collect the ransom money would have the other half of the page as proof of identity. A new element in the case was that the thief was now working with an intermediary. The letter stated that Father Henri Meulepas of St Laurentius Parish in Antwerp had to hand over the ransom money. The police informed the priest and handed him a parcel with the ransom money. However, the package did not contain the requested one million francs, but only 25,000 francs. On 14 June 1934, a taxi driver showed up at the rectory where Father Meulepas lived. Unsuspectingly, the taxi driver handed over a closed envelope with the message that he had to pick up a parcel. The envelope contained a torn newspaper page that perfectly matched the half page which the perpetrator(s) had previously sent. Father Meulepas then gave the parcel with the money to the driver, who drove away with it.
A series of indignant letters followed. The perpetrator was furious about the fact that the promised one million francs had not been delivered. After a difficult correspondence that led to nothing, the last letter arrived on 1 October. But after six weeks of silence something strange happened... A certain Arsène Goedertier suffered a heart attack shortly after giving a speech at a political party meeting in Dendermonde. 57-year-old Goedertier was the owner of a small bank office in Wetteren and was considered a respectable man. Because of his past as a sexton, he also had good relations with the diocese of Ghent. After his collapse, Goedertier was taken to the house of his brother-in-law, where he died shortly after.
Just before his death, Goedertier made an incredible confession to his lawyer, giving an unexpected twist to the story of the stolen panels. On his deathbed, he confessed that he was the only one who knew where the original panel of the Just Judges was hidden. With his last breath, he uttered the words "desk, key, closet, health service folder". And then, just like in a melodramatic Hollywood film, he gave up the ghost at a rather unfortunate moment. In the hope of finding the panel, the police searched Goedertier's office for the folder in question. The folder contained an envelope with copies of the thirteen ransom letters to Bishop Coppieters, but no trace of the Just Judges panel.
For decades, theories and speculations about the possible hiding place of the Just Judges have regularly emerged, but so far, investigators have always come up empty-handed. No one knows whether the greatest art theft of the 20th century will ever be solved, but the mystery has without a doubt contributed to the myth of Jan Van Eyck and his masterful triptych.
Van Eyck and The Ghent Altarpiece
Who was Jan Van Eyck, and what makes the Ghent Altarpiece so special? Discover more on these pages!