The Enduring Mystery of the Ghent Altarpiece, the World's Most-Stolen Painting

The Ghent Altarpiece open
The Ghent Altarpiece open
Jean van Eyck, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Oscar van Bouchaute watched nervously as hundreds of strangers trampled over the crime scene inside Saint Bavo’s Cathedral.

Earlier that day, on the morning of April 11, 1934, van Bouchaute—a church steward—had stepped off the cobblestoned streets of Ghent, Belgium, and into the cathedral to begin his daily rounds. He lit candles, rang the bells, and unlocked doors to prepare for the morning service. He was surprised, however, to find that one parishioner had already made her way inside the church. Somebody, he realized, had left a door open overnight.

According to a contemporary report in the newspaper Het Volk, van Bouchaute panicked and hurried to the cathedral’s sacristy, where the church’s jewels and articles of worship were kept. He counted each precious item and sighed with relief when he realized nothing had been stolen. False alarm, he thought.

He carried on with his duties. At around 7 a.m., he stepped into the cathedral’s Joos Vijd Chapel, home to The Ghent Altarpiece, a 12-panel painting that was widely considered Belgium’s national treasure. A giant shroud was draped over the artwork, protecting it from light and dust. Van Bouchaute began to diligently set up a table of tickets, postcards, and photos for the oncoming wave of art-loving tourists. Then he lifted the drape over the artwork and felt his heart drop.

Two panels—one depicting Saint John the Baptist, another depicting an equestrian scene called The Just Judges—were missing.

Within hours, news of the theft had leaked, and the chapel teemed with members of the public. One journalist estimated that 1500 people showed up. As gossip-fueled whispers bounced off the cathedral walls, church officials watched helplessly as strangers poked and prodded the scene of the crime.

The police did little to stop them. They did not clear the crowd out of the chapel or seal the premises. They did not photograph the crime scene. They did not look for fingerprints or footprints. Instead, when the crowd got too big, Commissaire Antoine Luysterborgh and four other investigators abandoned the chapel entirely. They decided to visit the scene of a different robbery: A nearby cheese shop.

When federal authorities arrived shortly after, they were no more helpful, and their police report equated to little more than a shrug. Three weeks passed with no progress made on the case.

Then Ghent’s bishop, Honoré Jozef Coppieters, received a green envelope in the mail. The writer of the letter inside claimed to have the two paintings—and he wanted a million francs for them.

 
 

The lack of interest by the authorities was notable considering that The Ghent Altarpiece is arguably the most coveted painting ever made. Started by Hubert van Eyck and completed by his brother Jan in 1432, the painting—which also goes by the name Adoration of the Mystic Lamb—has attracted religious pilgrims and art aficionados since the day it was revealed six centuries ago. It has since been stolen, censored, nearly burned, smuggled, and sold countless times.

The Altarpiece’s allure is partly rooted in its size and religious imagery. Originally consisting of 12 panels, the painting sits inside a nearly 12-foot-high hinged framework larger than a garage door. When the gates are closed, the exterior panels depict portraits of the painting’s donors, as well as Old Testament prophets and grisaille (gray-scaled) depictions of Saint John the Baptist and Saint John the Evangelist. Near the top, the angel Gabriel delivers news to the Virgin Mary that she will bear a son, an event called The Annunciation.

When the gates of the Altarpiece are opened, viewers are greeted by a sunburst of color. On the wings, Adam and Eve, frail and unidealized, stand nude. Clusters of angels sing and play instruments. At the top, God sits on a throne flanked by Mary and Saint John the Baptist. Below, a field of saints, martyrs, clergy, and hermits assemble in a pasture. A group of judges and knights sit on horseback. All are making a pilgrimage toward the painting’s centerpiece: a lamb standing on an altar. Blood gushes from its chest into a chalice. Below its feet, a stream trickles from the Fountain of Life and flows toward the viewer.

The Ghent Altarpiece was the first major artwork to utilize oil-based paint, a medium that allowed for unprecedented clarity and vivid coloring. Erwin Panofsky, a 20th century art historian, famously said that van Eyck’s eye functioned “as a microscope and as a telescope at the same time.” His attention to tiny details in faraway objects has been interpreted to symbolize the all-seeing vision of God.

“Until the altarpiece was painted, only portrait miniatures and illuminated manuscripts contained such detail,” art critic Noah Charney writes in his book Stealing the Mystic Lamb. “Nothing like this intricacy had ever been seen before on such a grand scale, by artists or admirers.”

"Portrait of a Man (Self Portrait?)" by Jan van Eyck
Portrait of a Man (Self Portrait?)
Jan van Eyck, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The painting’s uniqueness, however, has invited threats that have made it one the world’s more well-traveled pieces of art. In 1566, Calvinist militants rebelling against Catholic idolatry rammed a tree trunk through the doors of Saint Bavo’s Cathedral and attempted to burn the Altarpiece. Guards ferried the painting up to the church tower before the mob arrived. For the next 18 years, the painting was protected in a fortified town hall.

In 1781, Emperor Joseph II of the Holy Roman Empire, which encompassed Belgium, censored the panels depicting the naked Adam and Eve, which were replaced with copies covering the couple in bearskin cloths. Then came the French Revolution. During the tumult of those years, France conquered Belgium. The invading French confiscated fine art—symbols of the ruling classes—and sent the central panels of the Altarpiece to the Louvre, which had recently been transformed into a public museum. In 1815, the original panels returned to Ghent after Louis XVIII assumed the throne.

They didn’t stay there long. The following year, six of the panels were stolen again, this time by Saint Bavo’s own vicar-general. The panels traveled down a chain of salesmen and eventually landed in the hands of a Berlin-based art collector, who gave them to the Prussian Kingdom, the forerunner of modern Germany. A few decades later, in Ghent, the bawdy depictions of Adam and Eve were sold to a museum.

At the outbreak of World War I, Germany attempted to reunite the whole painting by stealing the remaining panels from Ghent. They failed thanks to the heroics of a church custodian who hid the panels between the walls and floorboards of the bishop’s residence. In 1918, that same custodian re-smuggled the panels to a safer location in the countryside.

After the war, the Treaty of Versailles forced Germany to return the six panels to their original home and the Belgian museum returned the nude Adam and Eve. The Ghent Altarpiece was united for the first time in more than a century.

But by April 1934, it was on the move again.

 
 

Bishop Coppieters must have felt a chill run through his veins as he unsealed the envelope.

It is our privilege to inform you that we possess the two paintings by van Eyck which were stolen from the cathedral of your city. We feel that it is better not to explain to you by what dramatic events we now possess these pearls. It happened in so incoherent a manner that the current location of the two pieces is known only to one of us. This fact is the only thing that should concern you, because of its terrifying implications.

In the letter, the ransomers claimed they’d return the Saint John the Baptist panel if the church agreed to send one million Belgian francs. The cash was to contain no traceable serial numbers and to be wrapped in brown paper, sealed with the insignia of the diocese. “We understand that the demanded amount is high,” the letter stated, “but a million can be regained, whereas a van Eyck can never be painted again.”

To signal his agreement to the deal, Bishop Coppieters was asked to publish this ad in the classified section of the local newspaper, Le Dernière Heure: “D.U.A. In agreement with the authorities, we accept your propositions totally.”

(If that scheme sounds straight out of a crime novel, that’s because it was. Years earlier, the French author Maurice Leblanc had introduced the literary world to the character of Arsène Lupin, a cunning burglar and master of disguise who communicated ransoms through newspaper ads, signing each deal with his initials: A. L.)

Illustrations from Le Triangle d'Or by Maurice Leblanc
Illustrations from Le Triangle d'Or by Maurice Leblanc
Maurice Leblanc, Wikimedia (Image 1) and (2) // Public Domain

Bishop Coppieters alerted the police to the extortion scheme. According to Charney, crown prosecutor Franz de Heem stepped in to lead the ransom negotiations and refused to give the criminals a dime. So did the Belgian government. De Heem advised the bishop to place a classified ad telling the ransomers that their proposition was “exaggerated.”

A few days later, a new letter arrived in the bishop’s mail. The ransomers threatened to slice up the paintings and mail in the shards. De Heem and Bishop Coppieters decided to feign compliance, and on May 25, 1934, the bishop published the requested message in the classified section of the newspaper. It was a risky move, but de Heem believed his team had an advantage: The ransomers had made a perplexing, if not foolish, proposition by promising to return the painting of Saint John the Baptist before receiving the money.

On May 29, a third letter arrived at his home. “We have read your answer in the paper of 25 May and take full note of your obligations,” it read. “Observe them conscientiously, and we will preserve ours.” Inside was a ticket for the luggage check at a Brussels train station.

Attorney de Heem and his accomplices rushed to the Belgian capital and presented the ticket at the luggage check, where they received a giant, flat package wrapped in black wax paper—the Saint John the Baptist panel.

Any suspicions that the ransomers were pulling a hoax immediately evaporated.

 
 

With a honeycomb of brass gates concealing his identity, an anonymous man sat inside the confessional booth at the Church of Saint Lawrence in Antwerp, Belgium, and confessed to nothing. Instead, the man began asking the priest a favor. On the other side, Vicar Henri Meulepas listened patiently.

A prominent Belgian family needed some special letters delivered in secret, the anonymous man said. Could the church help deliver them? Father Meulepas agreed.

With that, the man left. Father Meulepas did not know that he’d just been duped into assisting the activities of a criminal.

On June 1, a fourth letter arrived at Bishop Coppieters’s residence explaining how Father Meulepas would be roped into the scheme.

“We ask you to personally hand over the package that contains our commission to Father Meulepas, Saint-Laurentius Church, Antwerp,” it said. “You could let him know that it concerns a restitution of papers and letters involving the honor of one of the most dignified families.” Inside the letter was a vertically torn page from a newspaper, which was to be used as a key for the transaction.

De Heem decided to play along. He visited Antwerp and handed Father Meulepas a package of ransom money, wrapped in brown paper and stamped with the seal of the diocese just as the thief demanded. He also gave Father Meulepas the vertical strip of newspaper.

On June 14, a taxi driver pulled up to the vicarage in Antwerp, knocked on the door, and asked Father Meulepas to show the torn piece of newspaper. The priest handed it over. The driver revealed a second slip of newspaper and pieced the two together. They matched. Satisfied, the driver accepted the holy man’s parcel and drove off.

Within hours, the ransomers—wherever they were—would be seething in rage. De Heem did not put one million francs in the package as the crooks had demanded. Instead, the package contained a piddling (and traceable) 25,000 francs.

A photograph of Arsène Goedertier with images of Saint Bavo’s Cathedral and Ghent, Belgium
Arsène Goedertier among images of Saint Bavo’s Cathedral and Ghent, Belgium
Photo illustration by Mental Floss. Arsène Goedertier: Wikimedia // Public Domain. St. Bravo; Ghent: iStock.

The ransomers were indignant. “It is incomprehensible,” one of them wrote back. “We risked our lives to come into possession of these two jewels and we keep thinking that what we ask is not excessive or impossible to realize.” In other words: We went through so much trouble stealing these! Have you no respect?

The police did not. Over the following weeks, the authorities and the thieves communicated back and forth, but negotiations sputtered. De Heem did not mind. Believing that time was on his side, he stonewalled every demand and waited for the ransomers to make a mistake. The thieves wouldn’t dare destroy The Just Judges now—that would be like stuffing money down a shredder.

But time was, in fact, running short.

On November 25, 1934, Arsène Goedertier, a plump stockbroker with a curly waxed mustache and poor eyesight, collapsed at a meeting of the local chapter of the Catholic Political Party in Dendermonde, Belgium. Goedertier was by all accounts known to be a good Catholic man. An activist and a philanthropist, he was involved with his local church, had co-founded a Christian health service, and helped run two Catholic charities.

Goedertier was rushed to a local inn and then to his brother-in-law’s house. A physician, believing Goedertier had suffered a heart attack, gave him an injection. A priest arrived to offer confession, but Goedertier waved the padre away. “My conscience is at peace,” he reportedly said.

Then, unlike most people with a “conscience at peace,” Goedertier asked his lawyer, Georges de Vos, to step into the room and close the door.

Fifteen minutes later, de Vos emerged. Without saying a word to the people assembled, he walked to his car, drove to Goedertier’s home eight miles outside of Ghent, and stormed into the man’s study. If de Vos had scanned the bookshelves, he would have noticed an impressive collection of Lupin crime novels by Maurice Leblanc. Instead, he turned to the desk and picked up a file labeled Mutualité.

Inside were carbon copies of ransom notes, each ending with a special signature—D.U.A.

 
 

“I alone know where the Mystic Lamb is,” Goedertier had muttered to de Vos, his breathing labored. “The information is in the drawer on the right of my writing table, in an envelope marked Mutualité …”

With that breath, Goedertier died. He was probably still warm as de Vos began rifling through his office.

De Vos found nothing indicating where the missing painting might be located. The only notable object was an incoherent, incomplete handwritten ransom letter—more of a complaint letter, really—that Goedertier had never mailed. “I am the only one in this world who knows the places where The Just Judges rests …” it said.

The Just Judges panel of The Ghent Altarpiece
The Just Judges panel of The Ghent Altarpiece
Wikimedia // Public Domain

According to Charney, de Vos then made a series of odd decisions. He did not inform the police about Goedertier’s deathbed confession or his ransom notes. Instead, he met with four legal colleagues. These men—a district attorney, two court of appeals presidents, and Franz de Heem, the crown prosecutor who had been leading the ransom negotiations—started their own investigation. Their reason for excluding other authorities from the inquiry remains a mystery, and none of them were ever punished for not informing the police.

The lawyers did not find much: There was a fake passport under the name Arsène van Damme. They located the typewriter Goedertier used to type his ransom notes. (Instead of stowing the typewriter away as evidence, the magistrates used it to write their reports.) They found that, days after the initial crime, Goedertier had opened a new bank account and deposited 10,000 francs. They also discovered a key, which was found, years later, to open the rood loft of Saint Bavo’s Cathedral.

None of it made sense. Goedertier didn’t need money. He died with 3 million francs in the bank. He was closely connected to Ghent’s Catholic church and was the type of person who might be expected to give money to the diocese, not take it. Plus, he was in no physical shape to steal two large paintings. He could barely see. There was no chance that he could have stolen the painting. But no clues indicated who his confederates might be.

When the police were notified of Goedertier’s deathbed confession one month later, they took up the case and bumbled it further. For one, they neglected to interview the man who heard Goedertier’s confession, Georges de Vos. They also failed to inform the diocese about the confession for another four months.

This sloppiness seemed to be part of a pattern. They failed to interview a woman who told newspapers that she had seen lights flicker inside the Vijd Chapel the night of the theft. They never investigated the local post offices, despite knowing where the ransom letters came from. They never examined any of the 13 ransom letters for fingerprints. Nor did they ever question the men who were with Goedertier the day he died.

They did, however, interview Goedertier’s wife.

She admitted that her husband had made strange comments about The Ghent Altarpiece. “If I had to go looking for the panel,” he once said, “I would look on the outside of Saint Bavo.” On another occasion, she heard him mutter something about the painting being moved, not stolen. (Decades later, another investigator discovered that Goedertier had made a similar statement to a fellow broker: “If you move something, it is not stolen.”)

These utterances mirrored a tantalizing sentence in Goedertier’s last unmailed letter: "The Just Judges are in a place where neither I nor anyone else can take it without drawing the public's attention." This convinced the police that the panel might be hidden in plain sight, but their searches of the cathedral showed no trace of the painting. In 1937, they closed the case and officially deemed the panel “lost.”

But a single utterance from Goedertier’s 13-year-old son, Adhemar, ensured that the intrigue would not fade.

A year before the case was closed, Adhemar Goedertier died of chronic health issues. The death was a tragedy for a family still mourning the loss of a father and husband. It also introduced a new wrinkle in The Just Judges mystery. As the ailing teenager dozed in and out of consciousness on his deathbed, he kept muttering the same words: Police … thieves … police … thieves.

 
 

On the night the Saint John the Baptist and The Just Judges panels were stolen, Cesar Aercus was reportedly busy stealing cheese. According to Charney, at approximately 1 a.m. on April 11, 1934, Aercus was strolling toward the scene of his own crime when he stopped near Saint Bavo’s Cathedral. A black car was parked outside. A large man, shrouded by an overcoat, paced nervously by the vehicle. Aercus knew suspicious behavior when he saw it and watched from the shadows. Suddenly, a second man emerged from the church with a shrouded plank tucked under his arm. The men hurriedly stuffed the slab into the backseat and the driver turned the key.

The car faltered.

Aercus took this as his cue. He strolled across the street, approached the men, and asked if they needed help starting their car. The duo grumbled and told Aercus to buzz off. The car jumped into gear and sped away.

The city center of Ghent in Belgium, showing St Bavo's Cathedral to the right
The city center of Ghent in Belgium, showing St Bavo's Cathedral to the right
iStock

At least, that’s the story Aercus told the police 13 years later, in 1947, during a plea bargain. It’s unknown if his story is true. Aercus was a crook and had good reason to tell a juicy story; providing this kind of compromising information could shorten his jail sentence. But an investigation years later revealed information that corroborates some of his story: That same night, a shopkeeper reported hearing a car sputtering around that same time at the same place.

Whatever the story’s validity, police did nothing with Aercus’s report. Perhaps by 1947 the authorities weren’t interested in reopening a closed case. After all, just a few years earlier, the Germans had attempted to re-open it—and they had failed.

At the dawn of World War II, the Belgian government sent the entire painting—with the exception of the missing The Just Judges—to a hideout in southwestern France. In 1942, Germany stole it. The Nazis believed they had a legitimate claim to the painting and wanted to give the complete work to Hitler as a gift. Josef Goebbels, the Minister of Propaganda, assigned Oberleutnant Heinrich Köhn of the Nazi Art Protection Department to search for the final missing piece.

Köhn traveled to Ghent and interviewed dozens of people, including Goedertier’s family and Georges de Vos [PDF]. (Shortly after his interview, de Vos mysteriously died in a movie theatre. It's unclear whether foul play was involved.) Regardless, after years of searching, Köhn failed to find The Just Judges. He was sent to the front lines as punishment.

Had Köhn known about Aercus, perhaps his fate might have been different. Because when Aercus walked over to the car on that fateful night, he reportedly recognized both of the faces inside. In 1947, he revealed at least one of their identities during his plea bargain. One man was named Polydor Priem, a local smuggler. The identity of the second person, however, has vexed people ever since. There’s evidence that it could have been Goedertier, but we can never be sure—the police never wrote a name down.

 
 

From 1956 to 1991, Commissaire Karel Mortier—Ghent’s chief of police—investigated the mystery of the missing The Just Judges panel during his free time. He’s the person responsible for discovering the files on the Aercus plea bargain and Köhn’s report to Nazi leadership. Over decades, Mortier collected so much information on the The Just Judges heist that it took up a reported 26 feet of filing space. But some of the most interesting information came out of what he didn't find.

When Mortier searched the Ghent city archives for records of the theft, he could not find most of the files relating to the case. The same was true when he searched the cathedral archives. It’s possible that the records were lost or destroyed during World War II, but the lack of a breadcrumb trail led Mortier to another conclusion: a cover-up. Local authorities and some members of the church, he believes, might have been complicit.

But complicit in what, exactly? Nobody is sure. In his book, Charney expounds on one popular theory. As a patron of the Catholic Political Party, Goedertier had special access to the movers-and-shakers of Belgium's church. In fact, as a boy, he attended the same school as Bishop Coppieters. Charney suggests that a group of wealthy Catholic investors—Goedertier was a stockbroker, remember—had lost money in a bad investment. With the help of police, church members stole the painting in hopes that Belgium’s government would step in and pay the ransom.

The theory explains the amateur and bookish nature of the heist and the reason the ransomers never threatened to sell the panel to a different bidder—the church members wanted the painting returned to Saint Bavo’s. And perhaps that’s why Goedertier never considered it stolen: It was in the hands of a church member who cared about it.

But that’s just a theory. Critics have poked holes in the logic of that story. (For one, a ransom request of one million francs seems awfully low considering how much money could have been lost in a group investment—especially since the painting was valued at 12 times that.)

Other theories are more colorful: Along with further conspiracies of police collusion, there are theories that say the painting is buried in the tomb of Albert I near Brussels. Some say there’s a secret code written in Goedertier’s ransom letters. Others say the plot involves the Knights Templar, Nazi grail hunters, and a secret treasure map that could lead to the Arma Christi: the nails, whip, and other instruments used to crucify Jesus.

“I have been confronted with the wildest theories,” Mortier once told De Morgen.

The interior of St Bavo's Cathedral in Ghent, Belgium
The interior of St Bavo's Cathedral
iStock

Armchair investigators have looked tirelessly for the missing panel. Saint Bavo’s Cathedral has been searched at least six times since World War II. Mortier himself supervised a partial X-ray of the cathedral and found nothing. In 2008, investigators searched an old well below a parking garage. In 1995, an amateur detective illegally dug up Goedertier’s skull and questioned it during a séance. (When interrogated, his bones held their ground.)

The truth is, there are too many potential avenues to explore because there are too many unresolved facts that raise eyebrows. Take this one.

In 1938, a lawyer approached the Belgian minister of the interior, Octave Dierckx, claiming to represent an anonymous client who possessed The Just Judges. In exchange for the panel, the anonymous person demanded half a million francs. Belgium’s Prime Minister turned it down.

One year later, a Belgian art conservator named Jef van der Veken began making a copy of The Just Judges, a replica he’d eventually give to Saint Bavo’s Cathedral as a replacement. It sits there today.

Some detectives think it’s odd that van der Veken chose to work on the missing panel without any prompting from the church. Weirder yet, he began working on it just months after the failure of the 1938 ransom attempt. Was van der Veken the lawyer’s anonymous client? Was this ransom attempt some scheme to pass a forgery off as the original? Did van der Veken have access to the original panel and use it as a reference for his painting?

The questions go on. There is, however, one thing about van der Veken’s copy that everyone agrees is baffling: On the back of the panel, written in Flemish, is this cryptic poem.

I did it for love
And for duty
And to avenge myself
I borrowed
From the dark side.

 
 

Additional Source: The Disappeared Judges.

When Pablo Picasso Was Suspected of Stealing the Mona Lisa

On August 21, 1911, the Mona Lisa was stolen from Paris’s Louvre Museum. It was a Monday—the museum was closed and security was minimal—and the thief had reportedly spent the weekend plotting the heist while hiding in one of the museum’s closets.

At the time, security at the Louvre was abysmal. There were less than 150 security personnel in charge of guarding 250,000 artifacts, and none of the paintings were bolted to the walls. (The Mona Lisa, for example, hung from four measly hooks.) According to Ian Shank at Artsy, “Months before the heist, one French reporter had spent the night in a Louvre sarcophagus to expose the museum’s paltry surveillance.”

After the painting's disappearance, France’s borders were effectively closed, with officials examining every vehicle crossing the country's eastern border. Media coverage of the heist spread across the globe, turning the little-known painting into a household name. The Paris-Journal offered 50,000 francs for the painting’s return. Soon, a tip from an art thief would cause police to turn their attention toward one of the country’s most promising young artists: Pablo Picasso.

Picasso, who had moved to Paris a decade earlier, lived with a gaggle of Bohemians dubbed la bande de Picasso. Among this crew was the poet and writer Guillaume Apollinaire, whose former secretary was Honore-Joseph Géry Pieret, a Belgian man of questionable morals. Shortly after the Mona Lisa was stolen, Pieret—lured by the possibility of a cash reward—stepped into the Paris-Journal's office and claimed that he had lifted art from the Louvre before and had given the works to "friends."

Pieret was telling the truth. In 1907, he had stolen at least two Iberian sculptures made in the 3rd or 4th century BCE and sold them to Picasso, who paid him 50 francs per piece. (Picasso used these artifacts to inspire his work Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. [PDF]) That wasn't all. According to Nick Mafi at The Daily Beast, Pieret also stole a similar piece from the Louvre in 1911 and placed it on Apollinaire’s mantel.

The police read about Pieret's exploits with great interest. They believed that the people who were in possession of these sculptures might also have the Mona Lisa. And they didn’t have much trouble piecing together who, exactly, the thief's friends were.

Realizing that they were in deep trouble, Picasso and Apollinaire packed the Iberian sculptures into a suitcase and ran off in the middle of the night with plans of throwing the artworks into the river Seine. But when the two artists reached the water, they could not will themselves to dump the statues. Instead, Apollinaire visited the Paris-Journal the next morning, deposited the statues, and demanded that the newspaper give him anonymity. The newspaper agreed ... until the authorities stepped in.

Within days of Apollinaire's visit to the newspaper, the police had detained him. In early September, Picasso was ordered to appear before a magistrate. When asked if he knew Apollinaire, the terrified painter lied. “I have never seen this man,” he replied.

Recalling the events, Picasso said, “I saw Guillaume’s expression changed. The blood ebbed from his face. I am still ashamed.” As the proceedings continued, Picasso wept.

Although both men were indeed in possession of stolen art, the judge determined that the situation had nothing to do with the Mona Lisa’s disappearance and decided to throw the case out. Two years later, both men would be cleared of any possible connection to the crime when police discovered the painting had been stolen by Vincenzo Peruggia, an Italian artist who had been working at the Louvre.

10 Exceptionally Clever Female Con Artists

Ann O'Delia Diss Debar (a.k.a. Swami Laura Horos)
Ann O'Delia Diss Debar (a.k.a. Swami Laura Horos)
Bain News Service, Library of Congress // No known restrictions

You've heard of "con men"—short for confidence men—but what about the con women of the world? Some deceitful dames used their wits and well-laced lies to achieve great wealth, fame, and even the advantages of the aristocracy.

1. Aurora Florentina Magnusson (a.k.a. Helga de la Brache)

Back before blood tests were readily available, it was pretty easy to con your way into a wealthy family line. One Swedish orphan proved all you need is a grandiose backstory. In the mid-19th century, Aurora Florentina Magnusson declared herself Helga de la Brache, the secret daughter of King Gustav IV of Sweden and Queen Frederica of Baden.

She concocted an elaborate tale of the divorced royals reuniting in a German convent and leaving her to live with her "aunt" Princess Sophia Albertine of Sweden. Following Sophia's death—Magnusson's story goes—she was forced into an asylum, where her claims of noble parentage were sure to be ignored. After her "escape," Magnusson petitioned Sweden for a royal pension deserving of her claimed lineage. However, a trial in 1876 proved all of the above to be pure fiction. Magnusson faced fines, but no jail time. From there, she lived quietly with her female co-conspirator, Henrika Aspegren, for the rest of her days.

2. Mary Carleton (a.k.a. Princess van Wolway)

The old orphaned princess line was also employed by this 17th century Englishwoman. After two failed and simultaneous marriages, a resulting bigamy trial, and a fling with a wealthy nobleman, Mary Carleton fled England for the Netherlands. It was upon her return that she used her posh presents and romantic fantasies to remake herself as Princess van Wolway from Cologne.

With this ruse, she seduced and sometimes wed a string of men, playing each only to rob them. It's believed many of her victims were too embarrassed to reveal her deceit. But enough spurned lovers spoke up that her crimes did catch up with her, earning Carleton a death sentence by hanging at age 30.

3. Ann O'Delia Diss Debar (a.k.a. Swami Laura Horos)

Having taken on a slew of aliases in the course of her criminal career, little can be nailed down about this American con woman, including her real name. As enterprising as she was infamous, Ann O'Delia Diss Debar conned countless people through various scams that capitalized on 19th-century spiritualism. This earned her an enemy in dedicated debunker Harry Houdini, who denounced her in his book A Magician Among The Spirits, along with the whole Spiritualism movement, for “mothering this immoral woman.”

The New York Times described her as a “wonderful crook who without personal charm or attraction has set nations agog with her crimes since her girlhood.” After repeated convictions for fraud in the U.S.—and one for rape and fraud in London—Debar vanished from the spotlight and the police blotter. She was last spotted in Cincinnati in 1909.

4. Big Bertha Heyman (a.k.a. The Confidence Queen)

Cigarette card depicting notorious 19th century American criminal Bertha Heyman
Cigarette card depicting notorious 19th-century American criminal Bertha Heyman
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

After coming to America in 1878, this Prussian con artist followed in the criminal footsteps of her forger father, regularly ending up in jail. Arrest record aside, Bertha Heyman was considered one of the sharpest con artists of her day. She often played on people's hubris, greed, and ambition to her own ends, offering them the promise of wealth later in exchange for a fat load of cash now.

Even behind bars, she managed to bend people to her will. Not only did she swindle more victims while in jail, but she also convinced prison officials to allow her breaks from confinement to take carriage rides around Manhattan and visits to the theater. It's little wonder she earned the title "The Confidence Queen."

5. Barbara Erni (a.k.a. The Golden Boos)

Born to a homeless couple in 18th century Liechtenstein, Erni concocted an unusual way to make a living, and it earned her the nickname "The Golden Boos." She'd travel the countryside with a trunk she claimed was full of treasure. Wherever she'd stop, she'd ask her hosts to lock it up somewhere safe—like where they kept their valuables. The next day, both the trunk and her host's valuables would be gone.

But how did it work? Erni had a person with dwarfism as an accomplice who'd lie in wait within the trunk. Left alone, he'd emerge to rob the place before both would make their getaway. While her accomplice's fate is lost to history, Erni was eventually caught. After confessing to 17 robberies, she was beheaded in 1785. Erni has the dubious distinction of being the last person executed in Liechtenstein before its death penalty was abolished.

6. Mary Baker (a.k.a. Princess Caraboo)

An image of Princess Caraboo from "Devonshire characters and strange events" by S. Baring-Gould
An image of Princess Caraboo from Devonshire Characters and Strange Events by S. Baring-Gould (1908)
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

One of the most famous princess cons ever perpetrated was the brainchild of an English servant with a big imagination. In 1817, a striking woman in exotic garb appeared in a small English village, speaking in an indecipherable tongue. A Portuguese sailor conveniently popped up, claiming he could translate. She claimed to be Princess Caraboo of the island Javasu. Hers was a story of tragedy and danger that had her escaping pirate captors by jumping overboard and swimming through a storm to the safe shores of the English Channel.

This tall tale launched her to near-instant fame, and earned her fans in the wealthy Worrall family who feted and cared for her with lavish attention. Even when a former employer revealed Baker's true identity, the Worrall family stood by the charming impostor. They paid for her passage to Philadelphia, where her fame—despite its fraudulent claims—only grew. She later returned to her true homeland (England, not Javasu), occasionally donning her Caraboo costume for public performances.

7. Cassie Chadwick (a.k.a. The Lost Carnegie)

Born Elizabeth Bigley, this Canadian con artist took the princess routine in a distinctly American direction by claiming to be the heiress of a massively wealthy industrialist. Her cons started small in Cleveland, with Chadwick dabbling in fortune-telling and forgery. After some jail time served for the latter, the forty-something grifter began her biggest con, claiming to be the illegitimate daughter of steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie.

She said he sent her substantial payments to keep her silent, and this was enough for many to give Chadwick hefty loans. One bank lent her a quarter of a million dollars based on her claims, and later went out of business because of it. Carnegie himself attended her eventual trial, which earned Chadwick 10 years in prison. She died in jail in 1907 at the age of 50.

8. Linda Taylor (a.k.a.. The Welfare Queen)

She wasn't just a con artist, but a galvanizing element of Ronald Reagan's 1976 campaign, where the future president declared, "She used 80 names, 30 addresses, 15 telephone numbers to collect food stamps, Social Security, veterans’ benefits for four nonexistent deceased veteran husbands, as well as welfare. Her tax-free cash income alone has been running $150,000 a year.”

Reagan's depiction of "The Welfare Queen" has since been decried as hyperbolic and worse. But Taylor did exploit the welfare system to great lengths through setting up aliases, and spinning her ill-gotten gains into jewelry, furs, and a Cadillac that she'd proudly drive to the public aid office. Taylor eventually did serve time for these offenses. She has also been accused of kidnapping and murder, although never convicted.

9. Jeanne of Valois-Saint-Rémy (a.k.a. Comtesse De La Motte)

A portrait of Jeanne de Saint-Rémy, 1786
A portrait of Jeanne de Saint-Rémy, 1786
Bibliothèque nationale de France, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

A Frenchwoman of the 18th century with dubious noble ties, Valois-Saint-Rémy spawned a con so big that it's said to have helped incite the French Revolution by irreparably damaging the reputation of Queen Marie Antoinette. The Affair of The Diamond Necklace involved the conning comtesse convincing the out-of-favor Cardinal de Rohan to procure a fabulous necklace for the queen. Desperate to get in the queen's good graces once more, Cardinal de Rohan wrote the royal letters, for which Valois-Saint-Rémy forged responses. She even employed a Marie Antoinette lookalike for this scam, which ended with de Rohan handing over the hefty piece of jewelry valued at 1,600,000 livres.

When its makers demanded payment from the queen, Valois-Saint-Rémy was arrested and her deception revealed. But in the subsequent trial, the forged letters convinced many that the queen was actually carrying on an affair with the cardinal, further damaging her public persona. The necklace vanished, presumably disassembled for the sale of its many diamonds. Valois-Saint-Rémy served time, but managed to escape and fled to London. In 1789, she published her memoir, wherein she boldly blamed the late Marie Antoinette for the whole ordeal.

10. Sarah Rachel Russell (a.k.a. The Beautician From Hell)

This Victorian-era hustler exploited vanity for profit, promising clients at her upscale London salon everlasting youth courtesy of her special products, such as Rejuvenating Jordan Water, Circassian Golden Hair Wash, Magnetic Rock Dew for Removing Wrinkles, Royal Arabian Face Cream, and Honey of Mount Hymettus wash—all of which were essentially snake oil.

She also dealt in blackmail, and lured women into an Arabian bath that was rumored to have a secret spy hole where men could pay for the privilege to peep. Her trial in 1868 caused a massive stir, not just for her crimes, but also because it revealed that the women of London were paying far more (in money and attention) on make-up and beauty treatments than social mores suggested. Yet her three years in prison did little to change Russell, who, a decade after her original conviction, faced fraud charges once more. This time, the Beautician from Hell died in prison.

A version of this story first ran in 2015.

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