STOLEN MOMENTS

“‘Listen,’ said Polly, ‘what’s that?’

The cataloguing team was walking back from lunch.  Titus stopped in the west cloister and looked up at the windows of the Dutch Room.  ‘I didn’t know there was a concert up there this afternoon.’

‘Concert?’ said Aurora, frowning.  ‘What concert?’

‘Don’t you hear it?’ said Polly.  ‘It’s nice.  Really nice.’

‘But it’s Wednesday,’ said Aurora.  ‘Concerts are Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays.’

‘Maybe we’d better take a look,’ said Titus.  With Polly at his heels, he hurried up the stairs.

‘Don’t be silly, Titus,’ Aurora called after them.  ‘There isn’t any music.  I don’t hear a thing.’

stolen1
Johann Vermeer
“The Concert”
1658-1660
Oil on canvas
28 9/16” x 25 1/2”
Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
Boston, Massachusetts
(Current location unknown)

“But as Titus and Polly reached the top of the stairs, it was plainly audible to both of them, plangent notes from some sort of harpsichord, a threadlike soprano voice running softly down a scale to the plucked accompaniment of a guitar.

‘It’s probably for some special visit,’ said Titus, striding along the corridor.  ‘I didn’t know one was scheduled for today.  I must have forgotten.’

But there was no trio of musicians in the Dutch Room, no milling throng of polite guests.  And the music had stopped.’”[i]

This is how the writer Jane Langton described one of a series of strange events occurring in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.  Later, music would also be heard coming from the Early Italian Room, from the Spanish Cloister, and finally from the Chinese Loggia.  A “sympathetic displacement of noises” it was suggested.[ii]   All of this and other strange happenings, including a murder, occurred in her fictional account of this museum in Boston.

One of the first major purchases by Isabella Stewart Gardner for her collection was Johann Vermeer’s “The Concert.”  She accomplished this at an auction in Paris in 1892 and it later became one of the highlights of this important and personal collection.

stolen2
“Photograph of the Dutch Rooms in their Current State”
Courtesy of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
Boston, Massachusetts

Unfortunately, we know of it today as one of the 13 pieces that were stolen from the Gardner by intruders dressed in security guard’s uniforms in 1990 and never recovered.  The placement of objects throughout the museum is strictly enforced and the current empty frames illustrate the absence of these treasures.

This might remind us of a similar mystery occurring 56 years earlier and on the other side of the Atlantic.  A bungling Dutch constabulary spent the evening looking closer at a theft in a cheese shop than he did at another theft that had occurred in the cathedral directly across the street.[iii]   It was the theft of the “Just Judges” panel and only the most recent of several incidents throughout history involving the “Ghent Altarpiece” by Jan and Hubert van Eyck.

stolen3
“The discovery of the theft of the Righteous Judges, April 10, 1934”
St. Bavo Cathedral, Ghent.[iv]
In the panel of the “Just Judges” from the lower left hand corner of the altarpiece, we see all of the figures facing toward the center of the painting.  There are several identifiable portraits amongst the riders:  Jan van Eyck himself, his brother Hubert, and one of their patrons, Phillip the Good.  They are a set of contemporary portraits of Netherlandish nobles in the roles of Old Testament figures including Philip the Bold in disguise as King Solomon.  Sharing a pilgrimage, they form a cadre representing the most honest and just citizens.

stolen4
Jan and/or Hubert van Eyck
“The Just Judges panel from the Ghent Altarpiece”
1432
Oil on panel
St. Bavo Cathedral, Ghent
(Current location unknown)

These “Judges” show up later in history and mystery when they come to play a part in the novel The Fall by Albert Camus published in 1956.  A former Parisian lawyer now holds court, so to speak, in a seedy bar in Amsterdam just after World War II.  He has assumed the role of a ‘judge penitent’ of the contemporary world.

We are sitting in the café Mexico City, when this stranger intervenes with the bartender on our behalf in ordering the correct gin.  It is Jean-Baptiste Clamence and he goes on to fill in some of the history of the bartender and the interior of this place.  “Notice, for instance, on the back wall above his head that empty rectangle marking the place where a picture has been taken down.  Indeed, there was a picture there, and a particularly interesting one, a real masterpiece.”[v]

“Yet if you read the papers, you would recall the theft in 1934 in the St. Bavon Cathedral of Ghent, of one of the panels of the famous van Eyck altarpiece, ‘The Adoration of the Lamb.’  That panel was called ‘The Just Judges.’  It represented judges on horseback coming to adore the sacred animal.  It was replaced by an excellent copy, for the original was never found.  Well, here it is.  No, I had nothing to do with it.”[vi]

“False judges are held up to the world’s admiration and I alone know the true ones.”[vii]

 

Anyone with information about the stolen artworks and/or the investigations should contact Anthony Amore, Director of Security at the Gardner Museum, at 617.278.5114 or theft@gardnermuseum.org; or ARCA, the Association for Research into Crimes Against Art, www.artcrime.info; or INTERPOL, General Secretariat, 200 quai Charles de Gaulle, 69006 Lyon, France, E-mail: Contact INTERPOL.


[i] Langton, Jane; Murder at the Gardner; Penguin Books; New York, New York; 1988; p. 81.

[ii] Langton, Jane; Murder at the Gardner; p. 85.

[iii] Charney, Noah; Stealing the Mystic Lamb:  The True Story of the World’s Most Coveted Masterpiece; Public Affairs & Perseus Books Group; New York, New York; 2010; p. 145.

[iv] Charney, Noah; Stealing the Mystic Lamb:  The True Story of the World’s Most Coveted Masterpiece; (from the section of photographic inserts between pp. 146-147).

[v] Camus, Albert; The Fall; Vintage Books, A Division of Random House; New York, New York; 1956; p. 5.

[vi] Camus, Albert; The Fall; pp. 128-129.

[vii] Camus, Albert; The Fall; p. 130.

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