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.

Poet of the Week
Anna Axfors
I hate nature

I hate nature

I can't stand looking at moons

night after night


Now the sun lies so smooth

over the mountains and the only thing that remains is

a rabbits gentle leap over everything



And now something inside me comes loose

like ice during the global warming

when lots of ice falls into the ocean, becomes ocean

something inside me comes loose

and becomes me


Soon scene serenade

and bodies

arctic light over the sea and death

I have abandoned my old ideology and my new one is to try to create my own


And I have also had a flower beside me

in bed

when they thought I was dead

I have been afraid of death for six years

but it is not until now that I understand that life is short and then again I become afraid of life itself, just like the dodo dances until the day ends and it makes me so happy when I think about that you can do whatever you want and I don't want to wait until they think I'm dead

with having a flower beside me in bed

arctic light over the mountains on the other


sane swing soft serenity


arctic light over both lungs

I sigh, I fall asleep

I make a phone call

I'm tasting blood in my mouth and

it’s morning

she answers with hair she answers with tears

Time passes

Shame doesn't make you


but stiff in the


I don't like skincare

"constantly moisturize the skin"

I don't like that advice

Oh God

I can't do it

I lie on the ground and close my eyes,

slowly dying

even though I'm pressing my ear to the ground – I hear


it seems like earth

doesn't have a heart

ha ha, I've always known that

that it's only the ocean that has a pulse

And I have stopped believing in


now I believe,

maybe not only,

but a lot


"A gene is a locus (or region) of DNA which is made up of nucleotides and is the molecular unit of heredity"

it is what it is – it doesn't eat

it feels good no longer being able to blame someone

I no longer need to think about if I'm

middle or under class

I only Am

and it's nice

I listen to Celine Dion and drink beer

that's nature poetry to me

My thought is a flower in my head

the pillow smells pee and I don't care

a full meadow soon blossoms there

I will walk on it when I fall asleep

I will walk barefoot because nature is not very hard

I'm harder

For a period in my life I only wore black clothes

that’s why I don't know what to wear tomorrow,

everything is black

When I look through the window I see all the way to

the underground clubs where I used to dream

I loved this city before it had walls

I loved this sea before it bled

and I saw it from

afar and it smelled




I felt it from all directions

Sway sweat sear promises amends

that comes in your mouth, my orgasm

falling asleep to the sound of animals

in flight

My lovely fate is to make sure that air doesn't enter the bread bag and makes the

white bread hard

Then you will be disappointed

And in everything they want to remove

It doesn't live

it's not possible

It doesn't eat

it doesn't collect

It's raining violently, drops are whipped

against the windows, and explode and explode and land on rivers

I’ve never heard of, never been to

It feels like someone is touching my hair, fondly as if life is already over and will

be summarized

don't worry

but the Day that this weather is warning us

for will come

that brownness

has already come

"what can't happen" happen everyday

How I love the sound of


because it's useless and unbearable

Once I watched a documentary about Christiania it was about that kids who

grew up there were traumatized for life b/c all the sex and drugs (just another day in

motherfucking paradise). I could smell the smell of abuse and ashtray through the tv

screen, the edge of dirt under the nails

Someone said that I will never be right in the head and that I was and angel, a small animal.

I sat on Medborgarplatsen today and felt

the winds of change

whatever can happen whenever

you never know when the next thing will happen

I pray to the predictable god that I will be

like a jellyfish floating in the water, that I won't

know what will come later that I won't be ready

because it doesn't have smell nor color but it must

be good

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.