The first known art heist

Over the coming months Andrew and I are going to take you on a journey around the world where we will reveal Art Crimes - in all manifestations.

In 1473, Polish pirates boarded a ship that was en route to Florence. They walked away with Hans Memling’s The Last Judgement (1467–71), an intricately rendered triptych envisioning the second coming of Christ, and hauled it back to their homeland, in what is now considered the first recorded art heist. The painting today resides at the National Museum in Gdańsk, Poland, and Italians have been seeking its recovery ever since.1

The Last Judgement, triptych, oil on wood by Hans Memling (2)

So - what was this painting doing on a ship and where was it going?

The artist Hans Memling (1430 - 1494) was born in Seligenstadt, near Frankfurt ... and served his apprenticeship at Mainz or Cologne, and later worked in the Low Countries under Rogier van der Weyden (c. 1455–1460) in Brussels, Duchy of Brabant. He then worked at Bruges, County of Flanders by 1465. 2

The Last Judgment was commissioned by Angelo Tani, erstwhile director of the Bruges branch of the Medici Bank. When the triptych is closed, Tani and his wife are shown kneeling in prayer. The Medici sent Tani to London, and before leaving, in December 1467, he founded a chapel dedicated to St. Michael at what is now the Badia Fiesolana in Fiesole, which was patronized by the Cosimo Medici and others in the family. Tani commissioned the altarpiece for this chapel. It was shipped to Fiesole (now part of Florence) on a vessel that was captured by Danzig privateer Paul Beneke in April 1473. Beneke was not only a privateer but a German town councillor of Danzig.2

During the Anglo-Hanseatic War, Beneke overpowered an English fleet at Zween in 1468. When Beneke was commissioned by Lübeck, head of the Hanseatic League, to captain the ship Peter von Danzig, he chose to become part owner instead of taking pay. In 1473 in the North Sea, he followed and boarded the galley St. Matthew, which had a registered owner's name of Tommaso Portinari, but was actually owned by England. It was bound for Italy and on board was Memling's triptych The Last Judgment. 2

Not surprisingly, the owners objected to the seizure and the issue was taken up in the papal court. Danzig defended Beneke on the basis that the seizure was a legitimate act of war as the Hanseatic League was at war with England at the time. The painting was never returned. Instead, it was donated by three Danzig patricians, Sidinghusen, Balandt and Niederhof, to the St. George Brothers church in Danzig, whence it came to Danzig's St. Mary's Church (formally the Basilica of the Assumption). The Burgundian Duke, under whose flag the St. Thomas had run, brokered a peace between war-weary England and the Hanseatic League, restoring their trading rights.2

In the 20th century it was moved to its present location in National Museum in Gdańsk, Poland.

The triptych depicts the Last Judgment during the second coming of Jesus Christ, the central panel (below) showing Jesus sitting in judgment on the world, while St Michael the Archangel is weighing souls and driving the damned towards Hell (the sinner in St. Michael's right-hand scale pan is a donor portrait of Tommaso Portinari).2

The left hand panel shows the saved being guided into heaven by St Peter and the angels; and the right-hand panel shows the damned being dragged to Hell.

If you would like to see the details of the left and right panels and to examine the painting more closely click here.

Middle panel of The Last Judgement by Hans Memling (3)

Andrew and I are going to present many Art Crimes posts for you - more heists - sometimes of the same painting over and over again.

In fact our next post will tell you all about the most stolen and criminally assalted painting in the world and when the first crime against the painting occurred the police decided a theft from a cheese shop was more pressing!! And of significance a visit to a dentist lead to the painting being found. This might be starting to ring bells for some of you who might have seen the movie that reveals much of this story....but I'm giving away too much.

Watch out for the next AnArt4Life post in the Art Crime series - coming soon.