Stealing the Mystic Lamb: The True Story of the World's Most Coveted Masterpiece

Stealing the Mystic Lamb: The True Story of the World's Most Coveted Masterpiece

by Noah Charney


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781610390965
Publisher: PublicAffairs
Publication date: 04/03/2012
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 537,729
Product dimensions: 5.70(w) x 8.80(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Noah Charney is the author of the international bestselling novel The Art Thief and is the founding director of The Association for Research into Crimes against Art, an international nonprofit think tank. Currently professor of art history at the American University of Rome, he lives in Italy with his wife.

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From the Publisher

"A brisk tale of true-life heroism, villainy, artistry and passion." —-Kirkus

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Stealing the Mystic Lamb: The True Story of the World's Most Coveted Masterpiece 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 19 reviews.
newhaven-maven More than 1 year ago
I really enjoyed this book. We are introduced to the Ghent Altarpiece, a 500 year old art masterpiece, a painting on wood that weighs 2 tons---and yet it has been stolen more often than any other work of art. Noah Charney tells us why---and what happened. We learn how revolutionary the painting was, and how it inspired most of the great artists of the Renaissance. There are intriguing mysteries---we don't really know who painted it, and we're not really sure if one lost panel is real. Then there are the thefts---for so many reasons: religious wars, misplaced patriotism, war booty, ransom and finally, and most excitingly, by the Nazi's for Hitlers planned "ubermuseum". The story reads like a thriller, sharply written and well paced. Especially engrossing was the last section as the Allied Third Army races to locate the stolen "Mystic Lamb" before the Nazi's can destroy it and thousancds of other irreplaceable works of art, as part of their vengeful retreat at war's end. If you are interested in art, or art crime---or a fascinating march through history -you will love this book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
i enjoy history and my daughter had heard a review, on NPR, and thought I would enjoy this book...and she was right.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book is a great combination of historical facts and the analysis of a famous work of art. I greatly enjoyed the author's previous book, The Art Thief, and highly recommend that if you're interested in a fast-paced mystery. On the other hand, if you want to learn more about art's role in wars, conquests, and history in general, this is a good read.
KaskaskiaVic on LibraryThing 5 months ago
As a graduate of museum studies, Noah Charney¿s riveting account of Jan van Eyck¿s Ghent Altarpiece is greatly appreciated. Details of the craftsmanship and mysteries of the twenty painted panels and the importance of this major work of art are highlighted. It was a delight to read about the uniqueness of the painting historically and also of the impact that it still imparts in modern times. Fascinating tidbits of information, such as the techniques of applying gold leaf by static electricity to portraitists looking at their subjects through a mirror when painting rather than facing them directly rounds out the main subject of the book. The reader follows the provenance of the altarpiece as it weaves through six centuries. And the author skillfully presents the facts and evidence surrounding the mystery of the Judges panel. The importance of this piece of art in the context of the sociopolitics of cultural heritage is dutifully captured in Charney¿s book. In addition, this book will be a great supplement to the Ghent project funded by the Getty Foundation and the Belgian government. The project is to restore the work and is expected to be completed in December 2010. It is anticipated that the results of the restoration will be shared with experts and the public through lectures, seminars and workshops ¿ and perhaps the truth of the Judges panel will finally be revealed!
piemouth on LibraryThing 5 months ago
This is a book about the misadventures of the Ghent Altarpiece, the "Adoration of the Mystic Lamb", completed by Jan van Eyck in 1432. With its realistic depiction of the Lamb and its adorers, it links Medieval and Renaissance art and is the national treasure of Belgium. Not surprisingly, it's been stolen and recovered a number of times.Charney starts with a detailed description of the 24 panels that make up the polyptych panel painting: a main panel showing the adoration of Christ depicted as a lamb, with smaller panels on each side, and two outer wings of multiple panels that can be folded over the main scene, with more paintings on the outside. The paintings contain religious symbology that would have been designed by some church official, not the painter. Over the years scholars have found all kinds of coded messages about the painter and the subject. But it's the realism and beauty of the panels that make them such treasures.The rest of the book is about the thefts and damage the painting has undergone. It was taken by Napoleon's troops, it was broken up and the outer wings exhibited in Berlin for some time, it was united as part of Germany's reparations after the second world war. A panel was stolen in 1934 and that crime has never been solved. Charney says the crime has the same status in Belgium as the Kennedy assassination here, with new books and theories every year. He goes into it in detail but it was really more than I cared about. I'm uninterested in unsolved mysteries - I'm bored to tears by theories about Kennedy or Jack the Ripper. Perhaps readers who enjoy such things will be more delighted by this material than I was.Along the way Charney describes how plunder of a nation's art work was once standard procedure in war, but at the start of WWI art scholars implored the world's great powers to end this. Most complied. During WWII, England and the US set up military units to list and protect archeological and art treasures, and to educate soldiers so that they'd respect these things. The Nazis acknowledged that defeated nations should keep their artworks... unless they were in the hands of Jews or other non citizens. Hitler and Goering were each trying to grab as many pieces as possible, Hitler for a museum he envisioned in his home town of Linz, Austria, that would make it the center of the art world. The number of pieces is staggering, and it included The Lamb. The Reich converted a salt mine in Austria into a storehouse. But when the end was in sight, Hitler gave orders to bomb the mine and destroy everything. If the Reich couldn't have them, nobody could. By this time, American intelligence knew about the salt mine storage, but could they prevent the art from being destroyed? That's the main story of this book.Well, we know how it comes out, so there's not too much suspense, though that part's interesting. All told, it's another of those books that would have been a good magazine article but has been stretched to book length. The references at the end are kind of cursory; I'd have preferred footnotes and more details about sources. The book would really benefit from color reproductions of the painting.
Elleneer on LibraryThing 5 months ago
This book is absorbing and well written. However I avoided reading it for some time as I was put off by the author's self-aggrandizing, overweening website. I've always held with " don't toot your own horn". I believe one should let his accomplishments speak for themselves. But I may have had a negative (i.e. jealous?) reaction because I realized this author may well be a Renaissance man of our generation and what I have considered my liberal arts education falls far short of the mark. However, I AM suspicious of any book that states on the cover "The TRUE story of...."
TheFlamingoReads on LibraryThing 5 months ago
Begun in 1426 and finished in 1432, "The Ghent Altarpiece" by Jan van Eyck would become masterpiece on the move through theft, deceit, and greed. Originally created for the church of Saint John (later the Saint Bavo Cathedral) in Ghent (Belgium), it was commissioned by a wealthy couple as an offering and instrument of hope that they would be held in high regard by both the church members and clergy, and in the afterlife. It is a massive undertaking, both in size (measuring approximately 11' by 14') and content. Also known as "The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb", it is comprised of 20 panels that many art historians believe bridges the transition from artwork at the end of the Middle Ages and to the beginning of the Renaissance. In "Stealing The Mystic Lamb" by Noah Charney, we learn that most of the world's masterpieces played an integral role in wars and conquests. Bargains were made about the return of historically important works; paintings, sculptures, drawings, statues, furniture, tapestries, and rare books changed hands in the name of peace, often unrealized. The book is a fascinating look at how important art was, not just for nationalistic reasons, but as tangible items of conquest. The author takes us on travels through time as the "Mystic Lamb" moves from church to country to museum, all in the name of covetous ownership of this work of art.Through the last 600 years it has been both a bargaining chip and a chess piece on a grand scale. It has been burned, taken apart, forged, held for ransom, and hidden away, yet never forgotten. Its depictions of Mary, Saint John, the Righteous Judges, and other figures continue to intrigue and baffle. Even today, one panel remains a mystery. Inscribed on the back is this compelling poem: "I did it for love/And for duty/And to avenge myself/I borrowed/From the dark side".The painting itself is a wonderment of the 'new' style of oil painting (van Eyck is often considered the first artist to use oil paints) and ecclesiastical mysteries. Charney reveals and discusses many of the hidden symbols and words to show how paintings of this era were created to inspire and teach. Unfortunately, some of the information seems repetitive (on one page alone he twice states that the Louvre was originally a royal palace and on another page an entire paragraph is repeated) but, given that this is an advance copy it may simply be an editing error that will be corrected. Perhaps the most disappointing part of the book can be found on the back cover - "Finished book will 8-pp. color photo insert". There are small black and white photos of the artwork but it's difficult to appreciate and discern all the aspects of the painting as described in the text. Obviously, this will not be an issue when the book is released in October and excellent photos are available on the internet.All in all, this is an intriguing and highly recommended book, especially for those interested in art history and, oddly enough, the history of war. The illegal acquisition of art throughout the centuries played such an important role, especially in the Treaty of Versailles, that you may never look at a masterpiece the same way again.
NielsenGW on LibraryThing 5 months ago
In 1432, Flemish painter Jan van Eyck put the finishing touches on his Ghent altarpiece entitled The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb. In the 680 years of its history, it has been burned, forged, sold on the black market, ransomed, and stolen thirteen times. Charney¿s saga of the piece¿s history is as enthralling as one can make art history. From diplomatic struggles to Napoleon to burglars to the Nazis, van Eyck¿s ode to Christian symbolism has had a very eventful past, even more than the ubiquitous Mona Lisa. While there are some sections that take a while to get going, the whole book is charming and full of wonderful details. A well-done book.
ElizabethChapman on LibraryThing 5 months ago
Stealing the Mystic Lamb details the wild history of artist Jan van Eyck¿s great masterwork, the Ghent Altarpiece, which holds the record as the most stolen work of art in history. Since its completion in 1432, the work has been stolen thirteen times -- amazing in and of itself, but all the more remarkable when you consider that it weighs two tons and is the size of a barn wall. (To be fair, some of the thefts involved only a few of the painting¿s 12 panels ¿ a little more manageable of a caper.) Coveted by Napoleon and Hitler, cherished by the people of Belgium, and considered the bridge between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance by art historians, the Ghent Altarpiece is at the heart of one of the most improbable narratives in the annals of human creativity and conquest.The chapters of the book take the reader through a chronology of the altarpiece, starting with an explanation of the iconography of the work, which depicts the adoration of the ¿Lamb of God¿ (a metaphor for Christ) on its interior, and the Annunciation (when Mary is told she will give birth to the Son of God) on its exterior. The altarpiece was one of the world¿s first great oil paintings, a technique that allowed for stunning, near photographic realism. Some of the brushes used to create the altarpiece were so delicate they consisted of only a few hairs, enabling van Eyck to paint details down to the pores on a person¿s skin and individual strands of a man¿s beard. By the time I finished the chapter I was ready to book a flight to Belgium to see it for myself. (I settled for Google images.) The first chapter also gives a biography of Jan van Eyck and tells how the altarpiece came to be commissioned.The subsequent chapters track (to paraphrase the jacket copy) the looting, burning, dismemberment, forgery, smuggling, illegal sale, censorship, theft, concealment, and ultimate rescue of the altarpiece.Early in its history, the Ghent Altarpiece was swept into the religious tug of war between Catholics and Protestants, barely escaping destruction at the hands of Calvinists who saw it as an icon of everything that was wrong with Catholicism. Later, wars threatened the work - from the Napoleonic campaigns to two World Wars. Author Noah Charney uses the Ghent Altarpiece as a lens to explore how art can become a religious lightening rod or a political tool, its destruction signaling the triumph of an ideology and its capture symbolizing domination by an invading power. Charney shows how art has been used to validate a rising ruler, citing both Napoleon¿s creation of the Louvre (filled with loot from his tromp across Europe, including the Ghent Altarpiece) as a way to establish France¿s cultural preeminence -- and Hitler¿s quest to create a Super Museum in his working-class childhood home of Linz (looting the altarpiece in his turn) to prove the greatness of his vision and by extension the superiority of Aryan race.The episode that had me most intrigued (who would think art history could have you on the edge of your seat!) was that of the mysterious, and still unidentified, thief who stole two panels of the altarpiece and then started sending bizarre notes demanding ransom. The twists and turns in this theft are too complex to relate in a review, but they involve cover ups, conspiracy theories, death bed confessions, and possibly murder. One panel is missing to this day.Charney writes in an accessible style, but if you have an aversion to history you¿ll find Stealing the Mystic Lamb slow going. I certainly recommend for anyone interested in European history and the non-aesthetic side of the visual arts. Very satisfying and very informative.
Oberon on LibraryThing 5 months ago
Stealing the Mystic Lamb is a history of Jan Van Eyck's Ghent Altarpiece, a massive series of paintings depicting saints and scenes of adoration. The title of the book comes from the central panel depicting a lamb on an altar and worshipers surrounding the altar. The author, Noah Charney, does a very good job of explaining the Ghent Altarpiece and its significance to western art. While I have a solid (non-professional) education in art, Charney's description of the Ghent Altarpiece was sufficiently compelling to make me think about adding a side trip to Ghent on my next trip to Europe to see the Mystic Lamb in person. Unfortunately, the history of the altarpiece was told with less power and interest. I found this surprising because the history of the Ghent Altarpiece reads like a good crime novel.The altar has repeatedly been stolen by invaders and common thieves alike. Most recently, the Ghent Altarpiece was one of the most sought after works by Adolf Hitler for his planned super museum to have been built in his childhood home. In the book, Charney gets bogged down in his telling of the repeated thefts of the Mystic Lamb. For example, Charney spends a great deal of time going through various theories of who was responsible for/involved in the theft of one of the panels of the altarpiece known as the Judges panel. Despite a thorough look at potential suspects, the book offers no resolution and not even a sense of which theory the author believes. Similarly, Charney spends a great deal of time dissecting competing stories of who was responsible for saving the Ghent Altarpiece (and a great deal of Europe's cultural patrimony) from an Austrian salt mine in the waning days of World War II. Again, the lengthy examination ends with an unsatisfying "the truth is probably in the middle" conclusion that fails to add to the narrative thread. As a result of some of the narrative flaws, Stealing the Mystic Lamb comes across as more a piece of everyday reporting then the telling of a gripping story. I think this is unfortunate because the source material should have resulted in a more gripping read. Read Stealing the Mystic Lamb for a good education about the Ghent Altarpiece and its storied history. However, if you are looking for a good art heist book I would recommend The Amber Room: The Fate of the World's Greatest Lost Treasure by Levy and Scott-Clark or the The Gardner Heist by Boser. If you are more interested in a good history of the looting of art by the Nazis in World War II I would recommend The Rape of Europa by Lynn Nicholas.
PensiveCat on LibraryThing 5 months ago
My father, who wasn't that enthusiastic about art, nevertheless waxed poetic on the virtues on Jan Van Eyck; particularly the Arnolfini Marriage. This book, however, provided me with the entire scope of Van Eyck brilliance, which I seem to share with quite a few historical figures. I was impressed with the extent art has to do with history, even down to war strategy. The book was exciting, though toward the Nazi years I grew a bit impatient with the vast cast of characters and their backstory.
melancholycat on LibraryThing 5 months ago
I received this as an ARC through LT's Early Reviewers program as I had previously read Charney's The Art Thief and thought it was a good read. In Stealing the Mystic Lamb, Charney explores the fascinating life of the Ghent Altarpiece (commonly known as the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb due to central panel) by Jan van Eyck. He first describes its creation: why it was painted, who painted it, how it was painted, why its considered a major piece of art, the controversies surrounding its subject matter and creator, etc. The following chapters then describe, in great detail, each of the numerous times the Ghent Altarpiece was stolen, altered, damaged, etc. Charney does an excellent job of not only describing the specific instances, but also describing the goings-on of the day, so that the reader has a full understanding of what happened. That being said, sometimes the descriptions and background become a tad overwhelming, a sort of information overload for your average reader.Overall, I found this to be a good book; I learned a lot about the Mystic Lamb, van Eyck, and the major impact art has for nations, other than being something beautiful to look at. However, I think this book will have more appeal for lovers of art history or van Eyck than average readers. Some problems: I found there to be some repetition of sentences which will hopefully be caught prior to publishing. Also some sections could do with simplifying; Charney would be describing theft #5, then bring up details from thefts 2 and 3, then people from theft 4, while still talking about #5. Understandably, he was trying to present a whole picture and all of the information, but it could get really confusing. If you're intrigued by art, world history, and crime then definitely check this book out.
paghababian on LibraryThing 5 months ago
I have read a number of books similar to this, but I found Stealing the Mystic Lamb to be dry and slow. It is not a shining example of this type of book, although it is clearly very well researched.
mdtocci on LibraryThing 5 months ago
I debated a while on what rating to give this book. On the one hand, I found a lot of the information contained in the book very interesting. I've read a few art history books, but it's not a topic I know much about, so the chapters on how van Eyck painted the altarpiece and the historical significance of the painting made for fascinating reading. But I felt like there was way too much repetition and speculation, especially in the later chapters on post WWI history. In the end, although the raw information in the book was interesting, the writing style brought me down to 2.5 stars.
iubookgirl on LibraryThing 5 months ago
Stealing the Mystic Lamb is an account of the many crimes perpetrated against the Ghent Alterpiece, also known as the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb. This book represents exactly the kind of non-fiction I don't enjoy. Rather than the "riveting narrative" claimed on the back of the book, I found Mystic Lamb to be a a dry, and sometimes repetitious, presentation of facts. The detailed description of the piece and background history of Jan van Eyck, the artist, and the city of Ghent became tedious to me. I kept plowing forward hoping the narrative would become more engaging when I got to the thefts. However, I finally lost my patience when I reached page 79 and the story of the first theft was set to begin. Instead, the author regressed into a primer on the French Revolution. For what I think was the third time, Charney decided it would be "useful" to digress into a history lesson before coming to his point. I come from a history background, but was frustrated that the topic the book promised to address had still not come to the forefront. Unfortunately, I have too many book on my TBR pile to continue slogging through Stealing the Mystic Lamb hoping for an engaging story. A true art historian may find Stealing the Mystic Lamb a fascinating read, but I'm leaving this book unfinished.
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