Stealing the Mystic Lamb, by Noah Charney 336 pp., $27.95 (on sale as of Oct. 5)
The chapter titles in "Stealing the Mystic Lamb" sound like Indiana Jones movies – “Thieves of Revolution and Empire,” “The Magician in the Red Turban,” “Raising the Buried Treasure” – and they’re just as action-packed. Considered a Renaissance first, a benchmark of artistic grandiosity, the treasure involved is a large 12-panel oil painting, the "Ghent Altarpiece" (also called "Adoration of the Mystic Lamb.") Since its 1432 completion, the masterpiece has been stolen seven times, more than any other work in history.
Author Noah Charney, a man with the enviable job of studying art crime, chronicles the painting's dramatic history, from the peaceful early days in Ghent, Belgium, and on through wartime plunders, hunts led by Napoleon, and heroic rescues. During World War II, Hitler was convinced that the painting contained a coded map to lost Catholic treasures, perhaps the key to supernatural powers. He wanted it for his personal collection, and would rather see it burned than in the Allied hands. The Nazis indeed got hold of the piece, but before they could pass it on or destroy it, a group of Allied detectives stumbled on a clue that saved the stolen artwork, for the time being at least.
In scrupulous detail, Charney divulges the secrets of the revered painting’s past, and in doing so, gives readers a history lesson on art crime, a still-prospering black market.