Arsen Gudertir

Arsen Gudertir

Country: Belgium

  1. The Man Who Stole and Saved
  2. "To Molpase, to the Saint Lawrence parish, please," he said.
  3. "This is for your service," he said with a smile.
  4. "Here you go," said the surprised taxi driver. "Here's the response."
  5. "Thank you. You've really helped me a lot," the passenger said.
  6. "Alright, sir."

The Man Who Stole and Saved

In the morning, the bells of the Ghent Cathedral of Saint Bavo in Belgium rang six times. The verger of the cathedral crossed the church square and opened the main entrance - the faithful would soon gather for the morning service. He entered, turned on the lights, went to the treasury, opened a window to let out the smell from the previous day's service, and then took a large beautiful key and headed towards the Van Eyck Chapel to open the doors that covered the precious altar. Suddenly, he stopped in shock, looked ahead, and then shouted in a muffled voice: "Help! Thieves! The doors are open. The 'Just Judges' icon is missing. Not even a part of the altar with the 'John the Baptist' icon remains."

The verger reported the incident to the bishop, who immediately went to the Van Eyck Chapel and then called the police. The church was thoroughly searched, inch by inch, but the police did not find any fingerprints suitable for examination. About an hour later, customs officers and border service officials received a telegram about the theft. Photos of the stolen masterpieces spread worldwide. However, not a single clue for further investigation was found. Only a message from a certain Jean Hurtele was received, which could help in the search: "It was around midnight when I passed by the cathedral. A man appeared from a side exit. He was carrying a long object under his arm. At first, it seemed suspicious to me. What could he be doing in God's temple at such a late hour? However, he headed towards the bishop's house, and I assumed it was probably a verger or one of the clergy preparing for the morning service. There was something familiar in the way he walked, but I couldn't remember who exactly he reminded me of. Maybe if I saw him again, I would recall. But for now, I can't."

The stolen masterpieces were priceless. The Ghent Altarpiece was one of the most famous works by the Van Eyck brothers. It was commissioned by the wealthy Vijd family between 1420 and 1432. The altarpiece had been kept outside the walls of the Saint Bavo Cathedral for a long time. In the 19th century, the church administration sold some artworks, most of which, except for the 'Adam and Eve' painting, ended up in the collection of the German Kaiser Wilhelm. It was only in 1923, when Germany, defeated in World War I and obligated to make reparations according to the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, including art pieces, that the Ghent Altarpiece shone again in its rightful place after a hundred years.

From the beginning, it was clear that such a famous and valuable artwork could not be sold discreetly. The criminal or criminals had only one option: to demand a huge ransom for the painting. The assumption turned out to be correct. A few weeks later, a letter arrived on the desk of the Ghent bishop. It read: "Your Excellency! I am contacting you regarding the missing altarpiece. I am aware of its whereabouts. Moreover, I have it in my possession. I assure you, I am not a criminal, I merely managed to save the altarpiece from destruction. I outsmarted the thief. It was not an easy task, but I succeeded. Just like you, I am interested in the return of the masterpiece. It can be arranged, but it requires some financial expenses. As a reward for returning the altarpiece, I would like to receive one million Belgian francs. If you are willing to accept this condition, please publish a message, signed with the code 'D.I.A.', in the classified section of the 'Dernière Heure' newspaper." These lines were not written by an ordinary thief. They were written by a confident man who knew what he wanted and how to achieve his goal. But the church hierarchs did not understand this. The bishop did not want to make a deal with the criminal, so the letter was handed over to the police. However, the police commissioner believed that there was only one way: to pretend that the bishop accepted the conditions and set a trap for the extortionist. However, the criminal could not have overlooked this.

The bishop agreed to meet the unknown person without the involvement of the police. He placed a short announcement in the liberal newspaper 'Dernière Heure', and soon the extortionist responded: "Maybe. You doubt the truthfulness of my words. Perhaps you do not believe that the icons are in my possession. Realizing this, I am willing to provide you with evidence. Trust for trust. I am returning to Your Excellency one part of the altarpiece without asking for anything in return, as a gesture of good faith and proof of my honesty. However, for the other part, I must receive the amount mentioned in the previous letter: one million francs. If, but I hope it will not happen, after the return of the first icon, you, honorable Bishop, do not hear from me, then I will be forced to destroy the remaining part of the Ghent Altarpiece. I would like to warn you about possible consequences now. In such a case, all the responsibility for the destruction of this priceless masterpiece would fall on you."

After examining the texts of both letters, police experts concluded that they were written by an intelligent man who knew how to stand his ground and was not willing to compromise. He stated his price. The church authorities had no choice. The venerable bishop published a brief announcement on May 20, 1934, in the 'Dernière Heure' newspaper: "D.I.A. Agreed. Waiting for your proposals." The unknown person responded immediately. Canon Van den Heuyn received a letter by mail with the following content: "I have read your response in the newspaper dated May 25 of this year, which indicates that you agree to the proposed conditions. Please ensure that my demands are accurately and promptly fulfilled, and I also promise to keep my word. Along with this letter, I enclose a receipt from a storage facility, which will allow you to retrieve the 'John the Baptist' icon. No later than three days from now, I will inform you of the address where the package with the agreed commission fee should be delivered. Upon receiving the address, ensure that the package is well sealed and delivered on time. As soon as the banknotes you have provided are successfully put into circulation, I will immediately inform you of the location of the 'Just Judges' icon and how you can obtain it. At that time, we will finalize the settlement. To avoid complications, I advise you not to disclose the return of the 'John the Baptist' icon temporarily. I assure you, Your Excellency, of my respect for you and hope for a successful outcome of our business. D.I.A."

The envelope contained a receipt from a storage facility at the North Station in Brussels. On May 30, Canon Van den Heuyn drove from Ghent to Brussels in a car. He was accompanied by a man in plain clothes who resembled a porter. However, this man was Police Commissioner Grat. His colleagues, also dressed in plain clothes, had been watching the train station building since the morning, near the ticket office. Commissioner Grat was convinced that the criminal would appear at the station. He thought the extortionist would want to see with his own eyes that events were unfolding according to his instructions.

However, the thief was clever and managed to avoid the trap. The police had been watching the Brussels train station in vain. Van den Heuyn went to the storage facility, submitted the receipt, paid for one day of storage, and received a long package. Then he went to the police headquarters with Commissioner Grat. There, they placed the package on the table.

Inside, there was a new clean wax-impregnated cloth, and within it was the 'John the Baptist' icon by the Van Eyck brothers. The events were indeed unfolding according to plan. They had made a mistake, and the extortionist fell silent for some time. A day passed, then another, then a whole week. Finally, they decided to make another announcement. The extortionist responded: "Dear Bishop, it is unseemly for an honest person to break their word, especially when dealing with such a high-ranking hierarch as the Ghent bishop undoubtedly is. I am willing to have another, final negotiation with you, but I must draw your attention to the fact that I insist on the complete fulfillment of my instructions down to the smallest details. You understand perfectly well that you can obtain the second part of the altarpiece. However, before that, you must pay one million francs in used ten thousand-franc notes. Pack and seal the money, and then hand it over to the honorable priest from the Saint Lawrence Church in Melle. I am attaching half of a torn newspaper page. The person who comes for the package will show the other half. Both halves must be neatly folded and, naturally, match. Only after that should the package be handed over. No one should ask any questions or speak to the person who presents the other half of the newspaper. You must also ensure his unrestricted entry and exit. If any of the conditions are not met, I will be forced to destroy the 'Just Judges' icon. I would like to forewarn you about possible consequences. In such a case, the entire responsibility for the destruction of this priceless masterpiece would fall on you."

The bishop was forced to accept the conditions of the criminal, and soon the parish priest from the Saint Lawrence Church received a hefty package with the bishop's seal. Inside was another package with instructions and half of a torn newspaper page. The parish priest did not even understand what the bishop wanted from him, but he obeyed him.

On June 14, around half past one in the afternoon, a man in his forties or fifties emerged from the South Station building in Antwerp. With a beard, mustache, and glasses, he looked like an ordinary bourgeois, dressed like everyone else. He stood on the sidewalk, hailed a taxi, and got in.

"To Molpase, to the Saint Lawrence parish, please," he said.

The man lit a cigarette and offered one to the taxi driver. He asked about the driver's family, praised the old creaky Ford. Then, as if it had just occurred to him, he said, "I will need your help. Please deliver a letter to the priest from the Saint Lawrence parish and wait for a response. You see, it's difficult for me to climb stairs."

He took out his wallet, pulled out two small bills, and handed them to the driver.

"This is for your service," he said with a smile.

The car stopped in the square in front of the church. The driver got out, ran up the stairs to the priest's house, and rang the doorbell. The passenger sat comfortably in the seat, showing no signs of agitation.

Meanwhile, the taxi driver stood before the clergyman, looking puzzled at the torn newspaper page inside the package. There was nothing else. No letter, as the passenger had said, not even a line, just a strange piece of newspaper. The priest turned silently, walked away, returned with a hefty and carefully sealed package, and without saying a word, handed it to the bewildered taxi driver, folded his hands on his chest, nodded his head towards the door, as if to say that this was all and the messenger could go.

The passenger, in the meantime, lit another cigarette. He watched as the taxi driver came out of the priest's house with the substantial package in his hand, greeted him warmly, and smiled with satisfaction.

"Here you go," said the surprised taxi driver. "Here's the response."

"Thank you. You've really helped me a lot," the passenger said.

"Is everything okay then?" the driver asked as he got back behind the wheel.

"Yes. Everything is fine now. Please, drive to the city and stop in the square."

"Alright, sir."

The Belgian police made another unforgivable mistake. The police officer assigned to monitor the priest's house only remembered the taxi number, but nothing else. He did not follow the taxi or even think to raise an alarm.

The unknown man, with a beard, mustache, and glasses, who went by the code name D.I.A., turned out to be the extortionist. He was hiding, deceived, and angry. The reason was that the package contained not one million Belgian francs, but only twenty-five thousand. Two ten-thousand-franc notes and five one-thousand-franc notes. The serial numbers were recorded, and the police prefecture sent secret circulars to all nearby and distant banks, instructing them to detain anyone who presented these banknotes at any cost.

The police commissioner believed that the capture of the extortionist was only a matter of time. He believed that the arrest was imminent. However, not a single banknote went into circulation. The criminal got scared and angry. The bishop of Ghent attached an explanatory letter to the banknotes. He wanted to discuss some details, but refused further negotiations through announcements. It was very difficult; the police knew this, and there were certain difficulties associated with it. Therefore, it would be better for the opposing sides to exchange letters through a post office until further notice.

An agreement was reached. The bishop and the criminal conducted their negotiations in a new way, and the police prefect never found out that trade had unfolded around the priceless icon as if it were a marketplace. The bishop informed his correspondent that, under any circumstances, he could not collect a million francs. The church was poor, and the faithful were stingy. The mysterious D.I.A. agreed to lower the price by 100,000 francs, but the bishop promised only 225,000 francs - he could not gather more. In the next letter, the extortionist advised the bishop to organize public donations since the citizens of Ghent were patriots and would want to preserve the priceless artwork. Otherwise, D.I.A. would be forced to destroy the icon.

The bishop did not announce any fundraising, and the extortionist did not make himself known. The police continued their investigation, but they did not come any closer to the target. People began to forget about the robbery.

On November 25, 1934, in Dendermonde, not far from Ghent, there was a large gathering of Catholic faithful. Many men and women with prayerful hands, famous chants accompanied by an organ, the smell of incense. After the service, a collection of money was announced to ransom the 'Just Judges' icon. Suddenly, a voice resonated in the church:

"Sisters and brothers in Christ! Open your hearts to God and listen to His voice."