On the night of April 17, 1969, thieves broke into the Notre-Dame de Vitré church and one of his paintings was stolen. Fifty years later, the lost work of art, Crucifixion of the Overseas Merchantswas found at an auction and returned to the city.
A few weeks after the theft, a suspect, affiliated with a Belgian gang, was arrested in Spain and confessed to the theft. Escaping justice, this junk dealer nicknamed “Erik the Belgian” had continued his career as a forger and thief of religious art. In 1975, several caches linked to the investigation were raided, but no trace of the stolen painting was found.
Finally, the work resurfaced in 2019. It was two Swiss art history students who spotted the painting they had studied, by consulting the catalog of an auction in Lille.
The State services were notified and the Office for the Conservation of Movable and Instrumental Heritage (BCPMI) called on the Central Office for the Fight against Trafficking in Cultural Property to confirm that the painting put up for auction was indeed the one stolen from Vitré fifty years earlier.
“In the meantime, the painting has been sold at auction”says Thomas Gatel, head of the heritage department of the city of Vitré, to West France. But in accordance with the legislation in force, the painting, property of the city, was returned at the end of 2019.
There Crucifixion of the Overseas Merchants, the work of an artist from the School of Amiens, is an oil on wood panel produced around 1490. It is inspired by Flemish models and represents seven men kneeling at the feet of Christ on the cross, on both sides. other of the Virgin and Saint John. The hieratic position of the men and the similarity of the faces suggest that these are not portraits, but one of the rare representations of merchants from the 15th century.
The Brotherhood of Overseas Merchants, an association founded in 1472 having made a fortune in the hemp cloth trade, acquired the painting around 1490 to decorate their chapel located in the Notre-Dame church. It survives the revolutionary era and is classified in 1910.
Since May, the painting has been exhibited at the Museum of the Château de Vitré, protected from variations in temperature and humidity thanks to a climatic chamber.