Art crime captures audience

Measuring 14.5 by 11 feet and weighing in at close to two tons, Jan van Eyck’s “Ghent Altarpiece” is not the likeliest candidate for the most stolen artwork of all time.

And yet this monumental 1432 Flemish panel painting is exactly that. Art historian Noah Charney, who taught a course called “Art Crime” last semester, addressed a nearly full auditorium of professors, students and locals Thursday at the Yale University Art Gallery in a talk titled “Stealing the Mystic Lamb: A true history of the world’s most frequently stolen masterpiece.”

Though the idea of art crime conjures images of dashing European burglars tiptoeing through the darkness, Charney said the reality is far less romantic.

“Art is an under-protected, easily portable high-value item,” he said. “A commodity.”

But, he said, the Ghent Altarpiece fascinates him partly because it has historically been neither under-protected, nor portable. As “the single most desired artwork of all time,” the altarpiece, which depicts several biblical scenes and characters in its 12 panels, is intriguing as a concept, an idea that transcends academic fields to become more universal, Charney said. Though an extreme case, the altarpiece is part of the history of the “human psychology of possession,” Charney said.

Samo Gale ’10, an art history major and former student of Charney’s, said art crime is a fascinating area of study.

“It’s a lot of great stories, and great characters,” she said.

Charney’s lecture detailed the long and peculiar history of the altarpiece. Charney called it the most important object in the history of art theft and said few of the people who tried to steal it were motivated by financial gain alone. Though it is a massive structure, the detachability of its panels has allowed for numerous defenders of the work to remove it from display, dismantle and store it for protection against an odd assortment of thieves.

As one of the first major works in oil paint, the altarpiece is important from an art history standpoint. Yet for the many people who attempted to steal, successfully stole, or successfully saved the piece, the Ghent Altarpiece held a power beyond its artistic value.

From Calvinist rioters to Napoleon’s marauding forces to a greedy renegade vicar to Hitler himself, the altarpiece has incited fanaticism across both physical and temporal borders.

Yale has been involved with its own share of art crimes in the past few years. Last March, the NHPD retrieved several paintings stolen from the Slifka Center in a house near the Yale-New Haven Hospital, after a suspect in the case revealed their location. The University is also currently dealing with lawsuits over Yale’s Peruvian artifacts at the Peabody Museum, the skull of Geronimo allegedly kept in the tomb of Skull and Bones and Vincent Van Gogh’s “The Night Café” at the art gallery.

Yet the importance of art and art crime reach beyond the artistic realm, said Stephanie Goldfarb ’11, who took Charney’s class last spring.

“Though [the Ghent Altarpiece] is just a painting at the end of the day, it has come to mean something much greater to the people of Belgium, to the people of Ghent,” Goldfarb said. “Paintings are more than just art; they’re also about national identity.”

Charney, who is currently at work on a monograph about the altarpiece, has recently published a novel called, “The Art Thief.” He co-founded the Association for Research into Crimes against Art, an international non-profit think tank and consultant organization based in Italy and the United States.

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