An ornate coffer containing the blood of Jesus Christ – that’s what Arthur Brand, the Dutch art detective, found last week outside his front door. He has recovered many missing treasures – a Picasso painting, the “Hitler’s Horses” bronze statues, and a ring that once belonged to Oscar Wilde. But this was different. On his doorstep was a blue and gold copper container, beautifully decorated with angels and scenes from the Passion of Jesus. Inside were two lead vials, believed to hold the blood of Jesus from his crucifixion. The relic had been stolen a month earlier from the Fécamp Abbey church in France’s Normandy region. The thieves contacted Brand through an intermediary and offered to return the stolen relic to the sleuth, who only had to wait patiently for the delivery of the most significant treasure of his career. “I’m Catholic, and this is the holiest of holies,” said Brand. Dutch police will turn the relic over to their French counterparts on July 13 so it can be returned to Fécamp Abbey.
The man nicknamed the “Indiana Jones of the art world” won’t soon forget the experience of holding the relic in his hands. In a telephone interview with EL PAÍS, Brand said he received a secure email with the alarming news that the thieves would either “… destroy it or send it to me to be returned.” Brand said, “The thief must have spent several hours in the church in order to steal the coffer, and then realized what he had in his hands. Something like that is impossible to sell and going to the police is dangerous. So they contacted me through an intermediary.” Holding a relic like that is a different feeling than holding a painting, says Brand, even though paintings garner more attention from art buyers. “I waited for a week after receiving the email, and then one night the doorbell rang. Nobody was standing there when I opened the door, but then I noticed a box on the ground. I opened it and was stunned – the feeling was incredible.” Inside the box were 14 other religious pieces that will also be returned to Fécamp Abbey.
It’s believed that the blood in the lead vials was collected by Joseph of Arimathea when a Roman soldier thrust a spear into Jesus’s side during his crucifixion. The proliferation of internet sites that sell religious relics with no assurance of authenticity prompted the Vatican to remind Roman Catholics in 2017 that buying and selling these items is forbidden by the Church. Guidelines issued by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints (the Roman Curia overseeing the complex process that leads to the canonization of saints) state that relics “must be preserved and honored in a religious spirit, avoiding all forms of superstition or commercialization.” Brand said that it’s believed “… the lead vials arrived in Normandy by sea after being smuggled out of Palestine so they wouldn’t fall into Roman hands. They have also been linked to the Holy Crusades and the Holy Grail. The pilgrims who flock to Fécamp are an inseparable part of the relic’s history. Other European churches keep similar relics, like the Basilica of the Holy Blood in Bruges (Belgium), and the Crown of Thorns that is kept in the Sainte-Chapelle (Holy Chapel) in Paris.
Brand has an impressive résumé of recovered artwork, including paintings by Picasso, Dali, and Tamara de Lempicka. He has also found Roman busts, Byzantine mosaics, and Visigoth bas-reliefs. But two recovered pieces stand out because of their size and intriguing history. Life-sized bronze horses created by Austrian artist Joseph Thorak, which adorned the Berlin Chancellery, were well-known to be Adolf Hitler’s favorite sculptures. The horses disappeared in 1989 during the chaos surrounding the fall of the Berlin Wall, and surfaced in 2014 when a German family tried to sell them through Arthur Brand. Once he verified their authenticity, Brand alerted the German police who arrested eight people for theft. The horses will be publicly exhibited in Berlin in September 2022, says Brand. The second find has personal significance for Brand – a ring that once belonged to writer Oscar Wilde, his favorite writer, that was stolen in 2002 from Oxford University. When Brand contacted the university after locating the ring, they didn’t believe him. Since the university never apologized to Brand after the ring was authenticated, he declined to attend the 2019 event celebrating its return.