The Secret History of Art

Dueling Historical Facts and Van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece

/ by Noah Charney

As the author of a book on The Ghent Altarpiece (Het Lam Gods, Luitingh 2010), I am grateful for the assistance and advice of local experts, in this case specialists in Flanders. When my book came out, several scholars met with me and were extremely kind in pointing out a few historical facts that I included in my book that clashed with their understanding. I checked the items they mentioned and found something surprising, and perhaps a bit disconcerting: according to the history books, we were both right.

That is to say, the largely English-language sources I used for research said one thing, while the Flemish sources said another. For example, Anglophone books and articles described a theft of the wing panels of the altarpiece, orchestrated by Vicar Le Surre in 1816, while the bishop of Ghent was away—he sold them to Brussels art dealer, CJ Nieuwenhuys. But the Dutch sources, which I had not consulted to any great extent, since Dutch is not among the languages I read, told a different story: that the cathedral fabric committee met and officially voted to deaccession the wing panels, since the central panels were in Paris, having been looted by Napoleonic troops. This was a questionable move, but not a theft.

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How can two history books, both written by reliable scholars, but with mutually-conflicting information be correct? They cannot. When forced to choose between two versions of the past, I’m inclined to choose the one written by the local, rather than the foreigner. The nature of my research and the books I write is that I examine scores of sources, but almost all of them secondary. I am a professor, but was never interested in archival research—I write broader books that draw on the intricate, invaluable primary source research of others. I have written for peer-reviewed academic journals, but frankly find it on the boring side, so instead I choose to write for major magazines and newspapers. This approach, quite different from normal academics, means that I rely for my facts on the research of others—if they erred, then my story will contain errors. The responsibility is mine, but the logistics of reading dozens of books mean that I cannot double-check the facts that appear in all of them. For instance my latest book, an illustrated history of forgery, contains over 60 case studies, and I researched around 120 before selecting those to include. All of my books are carefully fact-checked by an independent researcher hired by the publisher, so it is guaranteed that there is nothing “wrong” from the perspective of an independent researcher looking at English sources. But if English sources contain different facts about history than the Dutch ones, we run into a problem.

One might conclude from this that a writer should not write about something that must be researched outside of their linguistic comfort zones. Such a response is impractical and small-minded—there are wonderful things all over the world, amazing stories to tell, and the fact that foreigners fall in love with Belgian altarpieces, and wish to write about them, or to visit them because they read a passionate writer’s account, is a good thing, and something to be proud of. But it does mean that a few errors may slip in. We writers and historians are grateful to those who pass on constructive criticism and can help point us in the right direction.

History is far from a science. It changes in the telling, for the teller may have an agenda of their own, or may have received misinformation, or new facts may arise. I am astounded and thrilled by the discoveries made already about The Ghent Altarpiece since my book came out, in 2010. I already published an updated edition (available as an eBook in English only at the moment), incorporating the information that generous Belgian historians offered me, as well as bringing the story up to speed. Even what counts as “fact” may be a matter of opinion. I recently stated that the Ghent police had done an impressive job in still chasing the Righteous Judges panel, and had traced it to Wetteren, where they found an outline in the dust at the back of the church choir screen the exact dimensions of the missing panel—that it (or an object of its precise dimensions) had hung there for long enough for the dirt and dust to settle around it, though of course when the police arrived, it was no longer there. This was told to me by members of the Ghent police department, and I was part of a BBC documentary film that included images and actually filmed behind the choir screen. That is as close to fact as a historian like me can get, and so I included it in the second edition of my book. A third edition will follow once the restoration work is complete, published in English and Dutch by a major Dutch publisher.

My book, as well as every other book or article ever written about The Ghent Altarpiece, will need an update, because the restoration has already uncovered major discoveries that dramatically change the way we think about what is probably the most important painting ever made. Recently one scholar has even convincingly argued that the Vijd chapel, in which the altarpiece was displayed, was not yet finished in 1432, the year it has been thought for centuries that the altarpiece was completed and first revealed to the public. The painting may not have been finished until 1435. These sort of revelations, stumbled upon in dusty archives and by searching beneath layers of over-paint, require the rewriting of history as we know it. It is important to keep in mind that historical fact is malleable and morphs. Foreigners tell tales differently from locals, and we foreigners rely on the kindness of locals to point out where they feel we may have erred. But with discoveries like those that arrive by the week in the restoration studio in the Museum of Fine Arts, the facts in every language will need updating. We foreign lovers of Belgian cultural heritage are grateful for any chance to engage with the art we love, particularly in such exciting times as these. I cannot wait to learn what else will be revealed by the end of the restoration of the world’s most-stolen painting.

Noah Charney

is a professor of art history and best-selling author of, most recently, The Art of Forgery. You can learn more about his work at or by joining him on Facebook.