This copy is the best way to understand how the original would have looked, as we only have a few black and white photographs of it left. The criminal who stole the piece did so as a means to return it to its rightful owners, as he saw it, but sadly the item was never recovered. Even on his death bed, when admitting his crimes, Arsène Goedertier would not actually reveal its location, leading many to assume that actually he had destroyed it altogether. It is unlikely now that this mystery will ever be solved, with a century having passed since the theft took place. The original painting formed a part of the lower left panel of the Ghent Altarpiece, and was worked on by both Jan van Eyck as well as his brother Hubert. The copy has been put in its place for now and the creator, Jef Van der Veken, is known to have been one of the finest copying in Europe, as well as an expert in this region's art and so one can assume a high level of integrity and accuracy within it.
The tall, narrow design captures a series of noblemen in the foreground, strutting around on horses who are each decorated with ornate outfits which suggests wealth and class. These figures are grouped fairly closely together and appear to be on the look out for someone or something off to our right. Behind them is a stunning landscape backdrop, that sort that became one of the trademarks of Van Eyck's paintings. A glorious palace stands proudly at the top of a hill, with further architecture found further to the left. Leading down to us is a series of decorative trees which add both colour and interest to that extended part of the panel. To the right is a rocky mound which leads up from the foreground, just behind the riders, and helps to establish a sense of perspective and space between the foreground and background elements.
The entire altarpiece can be found at the Saint Bavo Cathedral in Ghent, Belgium and it was from here that the panel was stolen back in April, 1934. A note left behind mentioned how it had earlier been stolen by German troops, but it was now back in Belgium and so this reference seemed peculiar, particularly after the criminal then demanded a large ransom for its return. This was refused and ultimately the piece would never be recovered. Investigations suggested that the individual may have had some help from within the church, but this was never proven conclusively.
This piece therefore remains one of the most famous artworks to have been involved in crime, and whilst most tend to be recovered eventually, it appears unlikely that the same will happen here. Another danger to great art has come from activists over the centuries who have been attracted by the publicity that comes with damaging a famous artwork and there are many cases of items having to be repaired right across the world, often from individuals who turn out to be deranged in one way or another.