Fri, Jan 18, 2019 - Page 7 News List

Theft of mysterious painting puzzles Belgian police


Saind Ludgerus Church pastor Jan Van Raemdonck sits in his office with research on the work of Michelangelo in Zele, Belgium, on Tuesday.

Photo: AP

It is probably not a long-lost painting by Michelangelo. It almost certainly was not stolen by a sophisticated gang of international art thieves — but the disappearance of a painting that a priest claimed resembled a work by the Renaissance master has Belgian investigators scratching their heads.

The wood-mounted art piece The Silence of Our Lady was on Friday last week snatched from the Saint Ludger Church in the town of Zele, 50km northwest of Brussels.

The priest, Jan Van Raemdonck, said that it could be a Michelangelo, and an Italian art expert was due any day to come and authenticate it.

Police have obtained grainy security video of a man walking near the scene before dawn with what appears to be a painting propped up against his head.

That would be a feat in itself, as Van Raemdonck said it took three men to place the approximately 1.50m by 1m work on an easel just before Christmas.

“He was not very smart,” said Van Raemdonck, who was writing a book about the painting. “It was at 5:15 in the morning. Other people passed by him in their cars going to the train station, so I hope other people have seen where he has put that painting in his car, which car it is, and maybe that we can follow him.”

Beside the video, police also want to talk to a man aged 17 to 20 whom a witness saw near the church that morning, wearing a gray hoodie and carrying a dark backpack.

While finding out where the painting has gone is a challenge, establishing where it came from is almost a mystery in itself.

A Belgian lawmaker is thought to have bought it from a friend who was having financial difficulties. The lawmaker then sold it to an organization that helps the church.

Thirteen years ago, the organization gave it to the church in Zele. It languished in a corner where it could not be seen for 11 years, until Van Raemdonck moved it to a more prominent place. Just before Christmas, he proudly put it on display in the middle of the church.

Van Raemdonck said that he told very few people about his suspicions that the painting might be a Michelangelo.

However, despite his enthusiasm for the painting, art experts have said that it is extremely unlikely that the piece is a 16th-century masterpiece.

“This painting is a relatively close copy of Michelangelo’s prototype,” Free University of Brussels art history professor Didier Martens said on Wednesday.

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