The art that got away

Throughout history, masterpieces have been stolen or destroyed, but it’s the ones that vanish which hold a special fascination

Features

13 Jun 2018

In Chatsworth House, one of the loveliest stately homes in England, there’s a portrait by Thomas Gainsborough of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, arguably the most alluring women of the Georgian age. An ancestor of Princess Diana, she was the Diana of her day. Like Diana, she combined high living with a social conscience. Like Diana, she married a powerful man whose affections lay elsewhere.

However, the most remarkable thing about this seductive portrait is that for 200 years it wasn’t here. It went missing from Chatsworth in about 1800, and reappeared in the 1830s above the fireplace of an old schoolmistress (she had cut the painting in half to make it fit). In 1841, she sold it to an art dealer for £56. In 1876, it was resold at Christie’s for 10,000 guineas, the highest price ever paid for a painting at auction. A few weeks later it was stolen by Adam Worth, known as the ‘Napoleon of crime’ and the inspiration for Sherlock Holmes’s nemesis Professor Moriarty, and vanished for 25 years. In 1901, it resurfaced in the United States. The American financier JP Morgan bought it for $150,000 and it remained in his family until 1994, when the 11th Duke of Devonshire bought it at Sotheby’s for $400,000 and brought it back to Chatsworth.

Top: Portrait of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire’ by Thomas Gainsborough / Above: ‘Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen’ by Van Gogh, one of two paintings stolen from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam in 2002 and later recovered
‘Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen’ by Van Gogh, one of two paintings stolen from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam in 2002 and later recovered

The chequered history of Gainsborough’s portrait has proved endlessly fascinating. Lots of artworks are destroyed, but it’s the ones that simply vanish which acquire cult status. When a work of art is obliterated, we usually get to hear about it. When there’s no record of its destruction, that often means someone is hiding it, waiting until the coast is clear. Another such missing masterwork is ‘The Tower of Blue Horses’, painted by the German artist Franz Marc shortly before his death in the first world war. When Hitler came to power, Marc’s work was denounced as ‘degenerate’ on account of its Modernist Expressionistic style. His ‘Tower of Blue Horses’ was included in the Nazis’ exhibition of so-called ‘degenerate art’.

The ‘Tower of Blue Horses’ was merely one of countless meisterwerken in this notorious exhibition, but its inclusion outraged many German veterans of the great war. Marc had laid down his life for the Fatherland, they protested. To mock his work was disrespectful. The Nazis didn’t mind upsetting art-lovers, but war veterans were another matter. The picture was removed.

Ironically, if those veterans hadn’t objected, ‘The Tower of Blue Horses’ would probably still be around today. Most ‘degenerate’ paintings were sold to foreign dealers and ended up in foreign galleries. Meanwhile, Marc’s masterpiece went awol. It was sighted several times after the second world war, first in Goering’s aviation ministry in the centre of Berlin, and latterly in the Haus am Waldsee on the outskirts of the city. After that, it disappeared. German curators I’ve spoken to are convinced it’s out there somewhere. My hunch is that the Red Army took it back to Russia, where it remains today. No one in their right mind would have destroyed it, least of all the Soviets, with their capitalist appetite for expensive works of art.

The Amber Room, St Petersburg
The Amber Room, St Petersburg

What’s heartening is how many lost artworks eventually re-emerge. In 1974, Vermeer’s ‘The Guitar Player’ was stolen from London’s Kenwood House and ransomed for a million dollars. It was located in a London cemetery only a few months later, virtually unharmed. Vermeer’s ‘Lady Writing A Letter with her Maid’ was stolen not once but twice from Russborough House in Ireland: in 1974 by the IRA and in 1986 by Irish gangsters. It was rescued by British police in Antwerp in 1993 and now resides (far more safely) in the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin. In 2004, Munch’s ‘The Scream’ was seized by armed robbers during a raid on the Munch Museum in Oslo. Mercifully, it was recovered in 2006.

Valuable and portable, fine art is an attractive commodity for organised crime. Two Van Goghs stolen in 2002 from Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum were retrieved by Italian police in 2016 from the Amato-Pagano clan, a particularly fearsome branch of the Neapolitan mafia. Both paintings are now back on show in the Van Gogh Museum.

Monet’s ‘Waterloo Bridge’, stolen from the Kunsthal in Rotterdam in 2012 and subsequently burned
Monet’s ‘Waterloo Bridge’, stolen from the Kunsthal in Rotterdam in 2012 and subsequently burned

The biggest problem for art thieves is that paintings like these are far too famous. It’s impossible to sell a well-known painting on the open market without proof of provenance, so some art thieves simply end up dumping their ill-gotten gains. Degas’s ‘Les Choristes’, stolen from a gallery in Marseilles in 2009, was discovered a few months ago in the luggage compartment of a bus in Paris, during a random spot check by French police.

Some paintings are stolen to order: it seems there’s no shortage of collectors who are happy to buy an Old Master, no questions asked. Yet thankfully, some artworks end up in the hands of people who don’t know they’re stolen, and are reunited with their rightful owners by happy accident rather than by design. Ron Roseman, of Houston, Texas, unwittingly sold a Willem de Kooning to an auctioneer as part of a job lot for $2,000, after clearing out the house of his late aunt and uncle. Unbeknown to him, it had been stolen from the University of Arizona Art Museum in 1985 and was valued at $165 million.

Some lost artworks, however, seem unlikely ever to resurface. The Amber Room, an actual room of amber, gold and jewels, was a present from the king of Prussia to the Russian tsar. When Hitler invaded Russia, his troops removed it from St Petersburg and took it to Königsberg Castle in East Prussia (now Kaliningrad). In 1945 Königsberg was flattened by Allied aircraft, and the Amber Room was widely believed to have been destroyed. However, a persistent rumour suggests this priceless treasure ended up on the Wilhelm Gustloff, a German ship used to evacuate German civilians from East Prussia, ahead of the rapacious Red Army. This ship was torpedoed by a Russian submarine and went down with 9,000 souls. If the Amber Room was on board, it’s now at the bottom of the Baltic.

Franz Marc’s ‘Tower of Blue Horses’
Franz Marc’s ‘Tower of Blue Horses’

Another masterpiece which now seems lost forever is ‘Portrait of A Young Man’ by Raphael. Seized by the Gestapo during the German occupation of Poland, it was last seen in Wawel Castle in Krakow. Hans Frank, the infamous Nazi governor of Poland, took it with him when he fled to Silesia to escape the Red Army. When the Americans arrested him in 1945, it was nowhere to be found. Frank was executed in 1946, and took the secret of its whereabouts to the grave. It is doubtful there are any Germans still alive who accompanied Frank on his flight from Poland and know where he hid it.

The peculiar tale of Cornelius Gurlitt shows it’s never too late to hope, however. In 2010, this reclusive German pensioner was travelling by train from Zurich to Munich when he was stopped and searched by the Bavarian police, and found to be in possession of €9,000 in cash. Suspecting him of tax fraud, the police raided his humdrum apartment in Munich, and discovered around 1,500 artworks worth hundreds of millions of euros — everything from French Impressionists to German Expressionists — most of which had been lost, presumed destroyed, since the second world war.

These pictures had been collected, in highly dubious circumstances, by Cornelius’s father, Hildebrand Gurlitt, who’d worked as an art dealer for the Nazis. When Hildebrand died in 1956, he left this illicit collection to his son. For over half a century Cornelius had kept his father’s collection a secret. He’d never had a job, he’d paid no taxes, he never married and he had no children. It was as if he didn’t exist.

Cornelius could have sold his father’s collection on the black market and lived the high life, but he loved these paintings too much. He lived like a hermit in his apartment, surrounded by precious works of art. Occasionally, he’d go to Switzerland and sell one of his beloved pictures for cash to an anonymous collector.

The authorities confiscated his collection. Much of it had been acquired during the Third Reich, which made its provenance extremely suspect. For two years they toiled away in private, trying to work out who owned what, but in 2013 news of their investigation leaked out. Overnight, Cornelius Gurlitt became front-page news.

Cornelius was old and frail, already suffering from heart disease. Hounded by the press, he died in hospital six months after the story broke. In his will, he left his entire collection to the Kunstmuseum in Bern. You can see these pictures there today. It’s good to know they’re back in the world, after 70 years in hibernation. But as you wander around this smart museum, you can’t help wondering how many more treasures remain concealed in nondescript apartments. The strange case of Cornelius Gurlitt suggests there’s still a lot of lost art out there, hidden from its true owners, turning the people who hide it into prisoners, and ultimately into ghosts.


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