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Still Missing: The Just Judges

February 29, 2024
A tall, vertical panel showing several men on horseback.

The Just Judges from the Ghent Altarpiece by Jan van Eyck

For the next installment in the Still Missing series, on still-unsolved art thefts, we’ll be going to 1930s Belgium for a story more fitting for a noir detective movie than real life. This is the story of Jan van Eyck’s Just Judges.

The Ghent Altarpiece is considered one of the most iconic works of Western art. It also has an incredibly turbulent history. During the Napoleonic Wars, French troops seized it from St. Bavo’s Cathedral in Ghent, Belgium, and displayed it at the Louvre. After Napoleon’s downfall, it was disassembled and scattered across Europe, with most of the panels going to British and German museums and private collections, including that of King Frederick William III of Prussia. During the First World War, German forces seized the remaining panels still in Belgium. Subsequently, after the war, Germany was forced to repatriate these panels and those in private collections as part of the country’s reparations payments.

The altarpiece was entirely reassembled by 1920, remaining that way for fourteen years when, on April 11, 1934, the sexton of St. Bavo’s Cathedral found that someone had broken in and stolen two panels. These were The Just Judges and St. John the Baptist. The panels were initially two sides of the same panel, with John the Baptist visible when the altarpiece was closed up, while the Just Judges are revealed after opening the polyptych. The Prussian royal collection’s curators had separated the panel’s two sides to display both images side-by-side. The thief had left a note reading, “Taken from Germany by the Treaty of Versailles”. While it would seem someone stole the panels as an act of vengeance, this turned out to be a diversion. Several weeks later, the Bishop of Ghent received a ransom demand for 1 million francs. The only clue we have of the thief’s identity is how they signed the ransom note, with the initials D.U.A. Wanting to reassure the diocese that he would return the panels once he received the money, the thief told investigators to look in the luggage storage at Brussel-Noord train station. There, they found St. John the Baptist wrapped up like a package. The station employees described the man who dropped off the panel, and soon, police were closing in on him.

After almost eight months of replying to ransom letters, something strange happened. In late November, a 57-year-old man named Arsène Goedertier, a local stockbroker and aspiring politician, suffered a fatal heart attack. On his deathbed, he confessed to his lawyer that he had stolen the Just Judges panel and that police should look in the health service folder in his office. When investigators went to look there, they found copies of all the ransom notes sent to the diocese. They were unable to find the Just Judges. The investigation lasted until 1937. Subsequent investigations suggest that Goedertier may not have been the thief at all, but nothing has ever come of it. No one has yet found The Just Judges. St. Bavo’s commissioned and installed a replica panel in 1945.