Lost art treasure may be hidden in Belgian royal crypt

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The Independent Online

For 66 years the whereabouts of a priceless masterpiece, its bungled ransom and the deathbed confession of the thief have tormented detectives and art lovers alike. Now a newtheory has emerged, one that has embroiled the Belgian royal family and could lead to the excavation of the tomb of King Albert I.

For 66 years the whereabouts of a priceless masterpiece, its bungled ransom and the deathbed confession of the thief have tormented detectives and art lovers alike. Now a newtheory has emerged, one that has embroiled the Belgian royal family and could lead to the excavation of the tomb of King Albert I.

In a bizarre twist, an Antwerp police officer claims a royal crypt is the hiding place of The Righteous Judges, which disappeared in 1934 and remains one of the world's most valuable missing paintings. Reluctantly, the prosecutors' office in Ghent, which closed its file on the theft in 1937, says it may reopen the case.

Despite a host of theories about its whereabouts, many experts have given up hope of recovering the art treasure. Unveiled by its creators Jan and Hubert Van Eyck in 1432, the panel was stolen from the altar of St Baaf's Cathedral in Ghent and has not been seen since.

The case has exerted a strong grip on the Belgian public: one detective has spent more than 40 years trying to trace the missing work.

The story begins in Ghent in April 1934 when The Righteous Judges went missing with a lesser panel, St John the Baptist. Three weeks later the first of 13 typed ransom demands for 1m Belgian francs (£15,000 at today's rate) was sent to the Bishop of Ghent. The church agreed to pay and, as proof of good faith, St John the Baptist was returned via a left luggage office. But the government told the bishop to pay only 25,000 francs and The Righteous Judges was never handed back.

The police had few leads until November 1934, when a 58-year-old stockbroker, Arséne Goedertier, collapsed with a fatal heart attack while addressing a meeting of the Catholic People's Party. "I alone know where The Righteous Judges are" were his last words, uttered to his solicitor whom he directed to his study. Inside were a set of keys with carbon copies of the ransom notes.

Now, with a striking piece of lateral thinking, a policeman from Antwerp's diamond quarter, Chris Noppe, has seen significance in the notes' postmarks. All were mailed from places along lines that can be drawn between three sets of locations, all of which are relevant to the missing painting.

The first line runs from Belgium's two biggest court buildings, in Antwerp and Brussels, the connection being to The Righteous Judges. The second runs from two St John the Baptist churches, one in Antwerp, the other in Brussels. The third line runs between the Cathedral in Ghent, the house of the thief in Wetteren, south-west of Ghent, and the grave of King Albert I. Mr Noppe says that links between Mr Goedertier and the king will be revealed in his book. All three lines intersect at the royal crypt, he says.

For an ordinary extortionist such an elaborate pattern is inconceivable. But Mr Goedertier was highly intelligent. He did not need the money. He took risks - delivering St John the Baptist in person to the left luggage office. He was, in short, the sort of man who might want to taunt police by dropping clues.

Mr Noppe has visited the king's crypt at the royal palace and believes there are several potential hiding places. He intends to supply enough newinformation to make an investigation inevitable. "I am sure that its location is connected to the king," he said.

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