Controversies United Kingdom

The hunt for missing government art

The Government Art Collection isn’t entirely sure where everything is…

A selection from the Government Art Collection at the Whitechapel

The Government Art Collection (GAC), consisting of 13,500 works of art, many of which decorate government buildings and embassies, opened a second show at the Whitechapel Gallery in London last month (until 4 December). The latest exhibition has been selected by artist Cornelia Parker, and the collection is keen to make its works more accessible to the public. Ironically, the works could be safer hanging in a gallery open to the public than in government offices.

Thefts, bomb damage and looting are some of the more extreme threats the works face. The collection has lost more than 100 items throughout its 113-year history, excluding the recent losses in Tripoli (The Art Newspaper, June, p1). Of the 67 works that went missing in the past ten years, only 23 have been recovered. In 2008, Jeremy Hunt, then opposition culture spokesman, told The Times: “The Department for Culture, Media and Sport needs to get it together on a problem that has been going on for too long.”

Questions raised

The recent reappearance of a lost painting at a London auction house raises questions around the degree of effort put in by the publicly-funded organisation to find works that have gone astray.

In May, William Brooker’s 1950-52 painting, Albert Bridge (est £5,000-£8,000), was withdrawn from sale at Sotheby’s following suspicions that it might be a work from the GAC. The work was sold at Lawrences auction house, Somerset, in January but appeared to match a work recorded as missing on the collection’s website.

The painting disappeared in the 1950s from a building in Gibraltar, and is believed to have been consigned by an elderly gentleman who said he bought it around the same time. Owing to an ongoing investigation, the GAC was unable to comment on the current status of Albert Bridge, but a spokesman says: “The sale at Lawrences was not picked up at the time.” Lawrences says it is working with the Art Loss Register to resolve the matter.

Mislaid works

The GAC faces particular challenges in caring for the 9,000 works it has out on loan at any one time. One reason is that the level of security in government buildings is not of museum standard. The GAC says that while these buildings tend to offer a high general level of security, “to work with the same level [as a museum] would be enormously expensive and make it impossible for the GAC to do the job it does now.”

Richard Walker, the former curator of the GAC, wrote to The Times in 2009 to say that pieces were lost in “hurricanes, tropical storms… and occasionally in the luggage of a retiring civil servant”. The GAC says it is not aware of any recent evidence to back up this claim.

The GAC also faces political challenges, as shown during the looting in May of the British Embassy in Libya. The 17 missing paintings were not moved earlier, for fear it might suggest a British withdrawal.

It is likely, however, that many “missing” works have been mislaid rather than stolen: despite a year-round audit, there appears to be confusion concerning the location of works. According to the GAC, Thomas Shotter Boys’ Blackfriars from Southwark Bridge, 1842, went missing from Snaresbrook Crown Court in February 2004. But a court spokesman told us that the print had been returned to the collection in March 2004. The GAC maintains that “[that is] mistaken. The print remains missing.”

Conversely, Tricia Gillman’s Stepping Stones, 1968, is not listed as missing on the GAC’s website (which includes information about the current location of items), but the British Embassy in Vienna says it has gone.

Meanwhile, Albert Bridge could have been found with a simple internet search.

The GAC says it will not revise its approach to finding missing works but will “continue” to place details of missing works on relevant databases, including with Interpol and on London’s Metropolitan Police’s stolen art database.

A freedom of information request to the GAC, however, revealed that many works had not been reported to the police, including Patrick Caulfield’s 1975 print Evening Menu 31/70, missing from the British High Commission at Abuja, Nigeria, since 2009. The GAC says: “In general, we do not report missing historical prints or multiple-edition prints, up to the value of approximately £2,000.” Where items are not reported to police, investigations are made within the building.

Where are they now?

Lord Frederic Leighton, Capri: Sunrise, 1859

Presumed destroyed in the British Embassy in Berlin during the second world war and subsequently not reported as having been looted. Now thought to have been sold for £102,750 at Christie’s, London, in 2000. The GAC is currently investigating.

Henry Lamb, A Spotter, Heavy AA, 1942

The work was commissioned by the War Artists’ Advisory Committee, which oversaw the creation of more than 5,570 works of art, 169 of which were given to the GAC. It was loaned by the GAC to the Ministry of Defence college at Warminster in Wiltshire, before going missing between 1968 and 1980. In 2001, the Imperial War Museum attempted to track down all the War Artists’ Advisory Com­mittee-commissioned paintings. The GAC failed to provide an update on those it held.

Abraham Van Beyeren, Beach Scene (date unknown)

Bought by the GAC for around £25 after the second world war, its last known location was the British Embassy in Ankara. Presumed stolen in December 1970.

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Comments

24 Oct 11
21:49 CET

STEVE ANDREWS, NEW YORK

I think this is outrageous news but guessing the gov't. funding of this dept. to properly maintain records is so woefully inadequate the curators/administrators in charge have their hands tied. With the importance & value of such a collection it's amazing in this age of technology it's handled as though they're still in Victorian England.

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