As quickly as it was rediscovered, a painting believed to be a lost work of Renaissance master Michelangelo has disappeared, a matter of days before experts were due to examine it.
The 16th-century artwork depicts Mary, Joseph and a sleeping baby Jesus and had been undisturbed in a dark corner of the Sin Ludgerus church in the small Flemish town of Zele.
Upon his discovery, pastor Jan Van Raemdonck, 61, noted the startling similarities between the painting and a drawing by Michelangelo in the collection of the Duke of Portland.
The work— known as The Holy Family—was due to be assessed within days by respected Michelangelo expert Maria Forcellino. The examination would determine whether it was Belgium’s only painting by the Renaissance master.
According to the pastor, the painting was discovered missing on January 11.
Two women who were laying flowers ‘noticed the external door was open and the painting was missing,’ he said.
Van Raemdonck, who has been a pastor of the church for five years, also revealed his suspicions. He had only confided in 20 trusted people that he believed the painting in his church to be a lost masterpiece.
‘I didn’t talk about my suspicion about the painting in the church,” he added. “I wanted to wait for the experts and if they said it was a Michelangelo I would have improved the security of the building.
‘I only told some family, friends and the church’s council. I told about 20 people, and never in public.’
He also said he had emailed a number of museums in an attempt to research the painting, but has not received a reply.
‘Maybe someone picked up the information from my emails,’ he said. ‘I hope the police can check cameras in the area and find out what happened.’
The church believes that the painting, which is mounted on wood, disappeared as part of what was a targeted burglary, involving more than one thief. The work is said to weigh about 100kg.
The chairman of the council told newspaper, Het Nieuwsblad, that the council had opted to restore the church tower rather than install burglar alarms.
What’s it worth?
The painting in question was said to be worth 10,000 euros, but Van Raemdonck estimates that if the artwork is authentic, it could be worth €100m (£89m).
Former Belgian senator Etienne Cooreman donated the work to the church 16 years ago.
Michelangelo’s expert hand produced exceptional works of sculpture, sketches and paintings, and Zele’s missing artwork would not be the only forgotten work by the artist to come to light in recent years.
In 2010, an unfinished painting of Jesus and Mary, which was stowed behind a family sofa in Tonawanda, N.Y was subsequently valued at £190m by Antonio Forcellino, brother to the expert commissioned by pastor Van Raemdonck.