28 May 2019

A great new art book: The Museum of Lost Art

The Museum of Lost Art is an excellent book by American author-academic Noah Charney (Phaidon 2018). He asked the reader to imagine a “museum” of lost art, one which would contain more master­pieces than all the world’s real museums combined. The Museum of Lost Art is a written history of art, told through the stories of works that have been stolen, destroyed or otherwise lost to the world.

Charney wrote that it was important to study what has been lost and why, to appreciate what has survived, and to understand how delicate the surviving port­ion of man­kind’s creative history was. The premise of Noah Charney's book was that the study of art history had to corr­ect the skewed vers­ion which had to rely entirely on extant works. Charney said this was done by resurrecting lost masterpiec­es, sometimes quite literally from the ashes. So the book was divided thematical­ly by a list of disasters that could befall a work of art: theft, war, accident, icono­clasm, vandalism and destruction by the owner.

Art was fragile and there were many ways in which it could be lost, even while on display in quality museums. The book began with an analysis of famous thefts.  We remember the notorious Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum heist of 1990 when 13 works were stolen from Boston. This famous, unsolved art theft took place on St Patrick’s Day in 1990; thiev­es stole works valued at $500 million from the Gardner museum, including Vermeer’s The Concert. And consider also Russborough House in Ireland, a country house that has been plundered on four separate occasions.

The chapter on theft highlighted the significance of art crime as the third highest-grossing criminal activity behind guns and drugs. Charney said that it was both very common and very success­ful! Only 1.5% of cases resulted in the recovery of items and the perpetrators being tried.

Other sections of the book were just as fascinating, from accidents by humans (eg a warehouse fire in London in 2004 that ravaged Charles Saatchi’s works) to acts of God (the 1966 flood of Florence when the swelling River Arno ruined works like Paolo Uccello’s Creation and Fall, 1443-46). During a fire in 1734 in the Royal Alcázar palace in Madrid, att­endants frantically struggled to remove the paintings: Velazquez’s Las Meninas survived, while several works by Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese, Van Dyck, Raphael, Bosch, and Brueghel burned.

The chapter on war was keen to establish that few of nations were blameless in this tale of wanton destruction. Looting was an off­icially sanctioned method of payment for British and French troops in some wars, including during the Opium Wars of the mid-C19th. Of course some works that were thought to have been lost in war.. were later found, as was the case with Leonardo da Vinci’s painting Madonna of the Yarnwinder (stolen 2003, recovered 2007).

Leonardo's Salvator Mundi was painted for Louis XII of France in c1500, and travelled to England with the princess Henrietta Maria when she married King Charles I. Hanging in Greenwich palace, the painting was part of King Charles' art collection that disappeared, only to resurface in 2005. Where was it in the English Civil War and afterwards?

Salvator Mundi 
by Leonardo da Vinci in c1500

Cultural crimes have been committed around the world in the name of war, national­ism and religion. Holbein’s paint­ing The Ambass­ad­ors (1533) had a crucifix in the upper left corner origin­ally was created to be part­ially obscured by the green curtain, but at one point the crucifix was compl­ete­­­ly painted out. This clear alter­at­ion suggested that a political message (references Henry VIII’s break with the Catholic Church through the formation of the Church of England) became offensive in other countries or in other eras.

The iconoclasm and vandalism chapter showed the difference between the two modes of destruction and illustrated it with exam­ples. Some works were altered from their original conception for good historical, religious or personal reasons. Strangely there were also intriguing tales of works deliberately annihilated by the very artists who created those very works - think of Gerhard Richter who burned c60 works in the early 1960s. Van Gogh’s Por­t­rait of Dr Gachet (1890) was completed just before the artist died and was to be cremated with him after the funeral.

For me, the most difficult issue to resolve was that The Museum of Lost Art should have included a chapter on works that had vanished into private collections, possibly to be hidden forever. Charney mentioned the works that disappeared into private collections of a couple who, in the cat­alogue of their collection, posed proudly beside stolen antiquities from Pompeii. Whether ignorance or sheer greed produced these types of collectors it was hard to say, yet they did exist and should have been held accountable more vig­or­ously than Charney did. 

The murky and private world of free ports, providing a means to avoid taxes and to keep assets a secret, apparently aided the growth of art as a speculative asset, and as a criminal asset. This resulted in huge warehouses being stuffed with art that most people would never see, or even know about.. for ever.

As a blog topic, I come back to the topic of lost or faked art often. So Charney’s was a good start towards recovering the “negat­ive spaces of the art world”, at the margins where artworks were lost, destroyed or smuggled away to serve immoral ends. Crucially, Charney pointed out that the works selected in his book offered an alter­nat­ive history of art. Most modern art history courses used a core of c200 extant and significant historic works, illustrated and dis­cussed repeatedly, he said. But even familiar works may not have been the best examples of a particular artist’s total oeuvre. For example, Rogier van der Weyden’s four paintings for the Golden Chamber of Brussels Town Hall were perhaps the best example of lost works that were more important in their time than the artist’s surviving works. It was easy to forget that works we associated with great artists were not necess­arily their greatest, most influential creations.

Several years ago, Charney published the book The Art of Forgery (2015). The reader might like to visit the The Museum of Art Fakes, a real museum of faked and forged artworks that opened Vienna in 2005 and includes the famous Vermeer-forger Han van Meegeren. So whereas it WAS possible to exhibit fakes and forgeries, it was clearly NOT possible to exhibit lost art work!


Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Hels - it's an interesting subject ... and I imagine there must be many ramifications, let alone truths in the telling ... Wars, greed, hidden (by the artist) collections, altered art as so often seemed to happen - depending on who was in power - back in the days ...

The book does sound very interesting ... and I've enjoyed learning more about art by being exposed to films, or programmes ... each tiny piece adds to the storyline in my mind.

Thank you - you've added to my very limited understanding ... cheers Hilary

Joseph said...

I was in the Isabella Gardner Museum after the thefts. The empty frames still hung on the walls, looking very very sad. There is missing art in other galleries, I am sure, but not as obvious as in Boston.

Mike@Bit About Britain said...

That was absolutely fascinating, Hels. I cheerfully confess to not knowing that much about art to begin with - though I do enjoy looking at it...and hearing the stories...

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, I have often wondered about the toll to the art world in various disasters, from the San Francisco fire of 1906 to the 9/11 catastrophe--it seems non-humane to discuss art when lives are lost, but much important artwork must have been destroyed nevertheless.

Another more subtle loss to the art world is in the deterioration and questionable restoration of art objects, especially paintings. Often, a painting which looks completely intact in fact has little of its original paint remaining, and its current look is due to restorers and how they thought the painting should look. Some museums provide illustrations of famous paintings showing original vs. restored areas, and many would be shocked that what they are seeing is mostly new paint.
p.s., Don't even get me started on the wanton destruction of beautiful and historic buildings for convenience or profit!

Hels said...


I too have learned a lot about art history through films and documentaries eg Fake or Fortune?
So the irony of learning about lost visual arts through text is not lost on me. Thank goodness for Noah Charney :)

Hels said...


When the thieves took 13 vitally important paintings from the Isabella Gardner Gallery in Boston in 1990, the director made the decision to leave the empty frames hanging from the walls. Although I agree that it does look a bit miserable, the empty frames represent the fervent hope that the stolen art will one day find its way back to its rightful home.

Hels said...


I thought the way to analyse history was via text, preferably contemporary but even secondary sources are good. Then I broadened horizons and read history via paintings, architecture, fashions, town planning, landscape design and any other relics from a particular era. And blogs, of course :)

Hels said...


I suppose there will always be volcanic eruptions, bombings, floods and other destructive events over which we have almost zero control.

But there are so many cases of lost art (or architecture, as you say) that is well within human control eg iconoclasm, vandalism or personal greed. Imagine seeing Catholic and Protestant authorities in the 17th century, denuding stately homes and churches of art they didn't approve of. Imagine National Socialist curators going through public galleries in the middle 1930s, looking for Degenerate Art to burn, hide in private collections or place in underground salt mines that will never be located.

Andrew said...

Then there is the value that can be added to a work of art by it being 'lost' and then found, such as our own Weeping Woman. Most people my age would remember the theft and the name, but we would not otherwise know of the painting.

Hels said...


Value, in dollar terms, has no relationship whatsoever to artistic talent, age, scarcity, public popularity or any other measurable factor. Even honest artists, galleries and auction houses want to maximise their profits.

Weeping Woman is a great example... I am glad you reminded me. The NGV paid $1.6 million when they bought the Picasso in 1986. By the time the painting had been stolen and relocated only three years later, the value had been re-assessed at $100 million!!

Dr Noah Charney said...

How kind of you, Helen, really appreciate it and best wishes

Dr Noah Charney

Please note that Noah regularly checks email only twice a week. He apologizes for any delay in reply, and will get back to you as soon as he can.

Hels said...


I got to the idea of "seeing" lost art treasures via a different route: thinking about 16th and 17th century printed books. How do we know what was published back then, if those precious books have been lost for all time?

So I loved the idea of your "museum" of lost art, thank you.