Which is bigger – discovering what many believe to be a relic containing the dried blood of Jesus or discovering a man who has earned a reputation as the real Indiana Jones of the art world? How about both? Arthur Brand is a Dutch art detective whose reputation for recovering valuable stolen items has earned him the name “Indiana Jones of the Art World," and like his fictional counterpart, Brand keeps coming up with hit sequels. It was announced this week that he has recovered the "Precious Blood of Christ" relic – a gold box holding two metal bulbs said to contain drops of Jesus' blood collected in the Holy Grail during the crucifixion. Whether you believe that part or not, the stories of both Brand and the relic make classic tales of mystery, history and intrigue.
“You have to work 24 hours, seven days a week, because if you give them too much time to rethink it, they'll never call back.”
In an interview with the BBC prior to his latest recovery, Arthur Brand attempts to explain his work as, according to him, the only art detective in the world. Now in his early 50s, Brand says he began while living in southern Spain as an exchange student and found three Roman coins while on a treasure hunt. Bitten by this very strange bug, he began working independently, scanning news reports for art thefts, then contacting the parties, following leads and ultimately recovering stolen paintings, sculptures and other artifacts. Brand says he has recovered several dozen works of art worth around £250m ($307 million). That doesn’t include his most famous one – in 2019, he retrieved Picasso’s Buste de Femme painting, which had been stolen from a sheik's yacht in 1999, from two men representing the current owner who claimed he was unaware of its past.
“You always have to work with somebody who has been trusted by the other side.”
Brand lives a dangerous life by dealing with such high-dollar criminals, but he has ways of keeping somewhat safe. Often, the crooks cannot sell the artwork and Brand offers to take it off their hands and return it to the owner – the criminals comply in return for keeping their identity hidden from the police, Interpol and other authorities. Brand keeps the police on his side by giving them tips of planned heists he hears about so they can be prevented. Using these strategies, Brand has helped find and return a pair of Medieval carved reliefs stolen from Spain in 2004, a stolen ring belonging to Oscar Wilde, paintings by Salvador Dalí and Tamara de Lempicka taken from a Dutch museum in 2009, and “Hitler’s Horses,” a pair of life-size bronze sculptures by Nazi sculptor Josef Thorak. But, as a Catholic and a fan of his fictional namesake and author Dan Brown, his ultimate goals are to find the Holy Grain and the Ark of the Covenant.
“As a Catholic myself, this is about as close to Jesus and the legend of the Holy Grail you can get. It was a religious experience."
In an interview with AFP, Brand recounts the excitement he felt when his doorbell rang recently at this home in Amsterdam No one was there, but on the ground was a cardboard box. Inside it were an ornate copper reliquary, several copper liturgical plates, depictions of saints and an ornate goblet. Brand quickly recognized these as items stolen in June from the Abbey of the Holy Trinity at Fécamp (Fécamp Abbey), a Benedictine abbey in Upper Normandy, France. The abbey is known to most people as the place where bénédictine, an herbal liqueur based on brandy, was invented, but to Brand, it is the home of the reliquary he was now holding in his hands. Carefully opening the roof-like lid of the heavy chapel-shaped copper box with four angels on its corners, Brand found the metal bulbs believed by many to contain the blood of Jesus collected after the crucifixion in the other Holy Grail – not the wine goblet from the Last Supper but the container said in some non-biblical gospels to have been used by Joseph of Arimathea to collect the blood before he put Jesus in the tomb. (Photos of the reliquary and the lead vials can be seen here.)
Wait a minute … isn’t the “Precious Blood of Christ” stored at the Basilica of the Holy Blood in Bruges, Belgium? Or buried in Westminster Abbey? Or in a crypt under The Basilica of Sant'Andrea in Mantua, Italy? Or at Weingarten Abbey (St. Martin's Abbey), another Benedictine monastery in Weingarten, Germany?
Right you are … and there are other places around the world claiming to have dried droplets or tiny vials of the famous blood around which they often hold Masses and festivals. While the relic itself has obvious religious value, it’s the reliquary holding or displaying it that is the work of art. This one was stolen with the other items two weeks before the Fécamp Abbey’s annual mass in its honor – a tradition it claims to go back to the 12th century. While keeping the relics is an honor for a church, for thieves it is a curse.
“This person was approaching me on behalf of another, at whose home the stolen relics were being stored. To have the ultimate relic, the blood of Jesus in your home, stolen, that's a curse. When they realized what it was, that you in fact cannot sell it, they knew they had to get rid of it."
Brand reveals he was contacted by email as to the location of the stolen reliquary, and he gave instructions to leave it on his doorstep and ring the doorbell. Like everyone who has heard of ‘porch pirates’, he kept a nervous watch for days until it finally showed up, then “I ran down the stairs, afraid that someone would take the box.” While it hadn’t been verified by experts or church authorities when he announced the find on social media, Brand is convinced this is the stolen "Precious Blood of Christ" relic because it matches the photos and his past experience has shown it is nearly impossible to force religious relics.
What’s next for the Indiana Jones of the Art World? Brand told the BBC he’s working on other cases, including the 1990 Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum case -- history’s biggest art theft in which around $500 million worth of art was stolen by two thieves dressed as policemen. If you’re wondering how Brand gets paid for these recoveries … he doesn’t. His income comes from traditional art consultancy.
Here is a photo of Arthur Brand, the Indiana Jones of the art world. Who should play him in the movie?