It might have been one of only two artworks by Michelangelo in Belgium and now a 16th century painting has been snatched from St Ludgerus church in the small Flemish town of Zele.

Thieves made away with the wood panel painting depicting the Holy Family between 5am and 6am on 11 January. An eye witness described seeing a hooded man between 17 and 20-years-old in dark clothes toting a backpack. The size and 100kg weight of the painting suggests the burglary may have been the work of several thieves. St Ludgerus is unprotected by burglar alarms.

The piece was donated to the church by Former Belgian senator Etienne Cooreman, a parishioner of Sint-Ludgerus in Zele, 16 years ago. The only other known work by Michelangelo in Belgium is a sculpture of the Madonna and Child in the Church of our Lady in Bruges.

The heist took place just days before the painting was due to be authenticated by art experts. Pastor Jan Van Raemdonck began to suspect the work was an original by Michelangelo or one of his pupils after he discovered a ca. 1538 chalk sketch of the same scene by the Renaissance Old Master in the Duke of Portland’s collection.

Zele’s town mayor, Hans Knop, has speculated that there may be a link between the theft and the pastor’s recent investigation into the artwork. In a bid to arrange heightened security measures, Van Raemdonck shared his potential discovery with the church council. “I only told some family, friends, and the church’s council. I told about 20 people, and never in public”, he told reporters. Previously hidden in a dark corner of the church, Van Raemdonck also moved it into a more prominent position.

Valued at approximately €10,000 (£8,824), if the work was authenticated as an original Michelangelo this figure could skyrocket to around US$144.8 million (£112.5 million).