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The masterpieces that got away: Noah Charney presents the Museum of Lost Art

Featured in The Museum of Lost Art: a tapestry copy of The Justice of Trajan and Herkinbald now in the Historical Museum of Bern Phaidon

Imagine a museum of lost art crammed with masterpieces that have, over the centuries, been looted, destroyed in war, accidentally demolished or attacked. This is the fascinating premise of a new book by the US scholar Noah Charney, published by Phaidon. The tome begins with an analysis of famous thefts including the notorious Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum heist of 1990 when 13 works, including Vermeer’s The Concert, were stolen from the Boston museum. Consider also Russborough House, a country house in Ireland that has been plundered on four separate occasions. Other sections are just as riveting, from “accident” (covering the Momart warehouse fire in London in 2004 which ravaged works owned by Charles Saatchi) to “acts of god” (the 1966 flood of Florence when the swelling River Arno ruined works such as Paolo Uccello’s Creation and Fall, 1443-46). There are also intriguing tales of works deliberately annihilated by artists—think of Gerhard Richter who burned around 60 works in the early 1960s (he was displeased apparently with the blurred paintings based on photographs). Charney also throws up some art world mysteries—what happened to Van Gogh’s Portrait of Dr Gachet (1890), sold in 1990 to the Japanese businessman Ryoei Saito who wanted to have the work cremated with him when he died (Saito died in 1996; the painting’s whereabouts remain unknown). Crucially, Charney points out that “the works selected also offer an alternative history of art. Most art history today uses a core of some 200 or so extant historic works, illustrated and discussed over and over again.”

The Museum of Lost Art by Noah Charney (Phaidon) Gareth Harris
More BlogTopicsVincent Van GoghNoah CharneyPhaidonIsabella Stewart Gardner Museum