After 20 years spent recovering long-lost artifacts and priceless art from across the globe, Dutch art detective Arthur Brand thought his career had peaked. He wondered how any case could top those that turned up a stolen Picasso or the pair of bronze horses made for Adolf Hitler once believed to have been destroyed by the Soviet army.
But then the doorbell rang.
When he answered the door on the night of June 21, the street was dark and utterly empty — except for a cardboard box holding an artifact that had inspired legends, pilgrimages and prayers for over a millennium. Carefully, Brand carried inside the stolen reliquary of the “Précieux Sang,” or “Precious Blood” in French — an ornate, jewel-encrusted container that protects two lead vials with pieces of linen believed to be doused with the blood of Jesus.
How an item dating back to Jesus’ crucifixion wound up in Brand’s Amsterdam home is a tale enmeshed with miracles, attacks, kings, saints and a mysterious robbery police haven’t yet been able to crack. But it starts near the coast of Normandy more than 1,300 years ago, when a fig tree trunk used to hide the relic from Roman invaders washed up on the beach of Fécamp, according to lore.
It took some centuries for the lead vials to be discovered, but an abbey was erected at that site in A.D. 658. However, it was later destroyed in Viking attacks. Subsequent structures faced fires and wars, until the Holy Trinity Abbey that still stands was built around 1175. Since then, the church has guarded the “Precious Blood” relic — until a group of unidentified thieves snatched it along with metallic liturgical dishes, artwork and chalices on June 2.
French authorities believe the thieves locked themselves inside the church — which doesn’t have a security system — at night and then broke out through a door the next morning, Le Parisien reported. Le Havre Bishop Jean-Luc Brunin deemed it “an unbearable attack on the faith of all people who remember the Salvation obtained by the sacrifice of [Jesus],” according to the outlet.
But about two weeks after the heist, Brand — who dabbles with art consultancy but works closely with police when he takes up investigations — received an encrypted email from someone who claimed to be a friend of the thieves. The person said they had the artifact at their home after the thieves unloaded it.
“They gave me the option, ‘Either we throw it away, or you make sure that it goes back to the abbey,’ ” Brand said. “Of course, I said yes. So then they tell me that they were going to bring it to my home sometime the next week.”
“I thought, ‘This is a joke,’ ” he added. “Like something out of a Dan Brown novel.”
Brand suspects that the thieves began feeling the weight of having stolen a sacred relic. Not only might they have been spooked by the prospect of getting cursed, but they also probably realized selling the pieces would be nearly impossible, he said.
Brand pointed out that it’s rare for stolen art to be recovered — most estimates put the figure below 10 percent. “And that’s because stealing art is not that difficult, but selling it is. Nobody wants to touch illegal art, and then the thieves think the police [are] on them, so they end up destroying it, throwing it in the sea or melting it down.”
After it showed up at his doorstep, the copper-gilded reliquary with images of Jesus painted in cerulean-blue accents sat in Brand’s house for about a week while the detective verified its authenticity. In a moment of closeness to the holy item, which is usually reserved to clerics, Brand said he took a peek inside the shrine and saw the lead vials containing the blood — “I hope God can forgive me for that one, but I had to make sure everything was in there,” said Brand, a Catholic.
Dutch and French authorities have not yet made any arrests or publicly identified any suspects. But they are now coordinating the item’s return to the abbey — which brought elation to Brunin, who told Le Parisien “we feared it was gone forever.” Yet, before turning the relic over to the police, Brand said he was on his saintliest behavior.
“I didn’t curse for a week, and I put a towel around my waist if I went into the shower and had to go to my bedroom — you know, to not be naked in front of this relic,” he said. “If anyone came over, I warned them that they had to behave like saints.”
Despite the pressure, those moments alone with the relic brought a sense of immense reverence. There he was, a self-described “ordinary guy who sometimes has these great adventures” in the presence of something so sacred to many. For Brand, those are the instances he has cherished the most throughout his career.
“My greatest satisfaction is in the few days that I’m alone with such a great piece,” he said. “Whether it’s the ring of Oscar Wilde … the blood of Jesus or many, many other famous pieces I’ve recovered, to be with them for a couple of days alone is priceless.”
That’s the feeling that keeps Brand going after recovering hundreds of paintings, sculptures and ancient artifacts through investigations befitting a Hollywood flick, earning him the moniker of the “Indiana Jones of the art world.”
He doesn’t necessarily agree with that, though.
“Harrison Ford is a real good-looking guy,” Brand said. “I’m more like Peter Sellers’s Inspector Clouseau — I follow the wrong suspects and make stupid mistakes. But having said that, some of the adventures we get into, like the horses and even this one, have a bit of Robert Langdon, Indiana Jones things to it.”
Last week, Dan Brown — “The Da Vinci Code” author whose novels follow the adventures of protagonist Langdon — shared a story about Brand and the “Précieux Sang” with his 5.9 million Facebook followers.
“Art detective will forever be a cool job title,” Brown wrote.