In November 1943, when it looked like London was going to be subjected to a new aerial barrage from Nazi Germany, Evelyn Waugh wrote in his diary: ‘I have accordingly given orders for the books I have been keeping at the Hyde Park Hotel to be sent to Piers Court. At the same time I have advocated my son coming to London. It would seem from this that I prefer my books to my son. I can argue that firemen rescue children and destroy books, but the truth is that a child is easily replaced while a book destroyed is utterly lost.’
That thought may be more savagely extended than most of us would venture, but it is recognisable. Whenever a country descends into a state of war the first images are always the same: human suffering and human misery. But somewhere after that always come equally searing images — the bespoiling of a history and a culture. Which loss in the long term means more? Most of us would say ‘people’ with certainty and one eye on our reputation. But history tends to remember the artefacts that have been lost as much — if not more — than it remembers any particular -people.
Today many people recall the looting of the National Museum of Iraq better than they remember any particular Baghdad car-bomb that followed. Some of the most terrible pictures from Syria have been of the destruction of its magnificent architectural heritage. Indeed such things often call down more international opprobrium than anything else. Until 9/11 it took the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas to truly bring international condemnation down on the Taliban.
Why is this? Perhaps it is because we know that the destruction of a nation’s art compounds the wreckage of any single generation. It constitutes the wreckage of every memory of the generations that have gone before as well. This was one of the things in everyone’s minds over the last three years as Egypt went through revolution, coup and counter-coup. With the National Museum so close to Tahrir Square, it was not just the army, but on occasion ordinary citizens who turned out to protect one of the world’s great museums. Just as it is individuals who can wreck a country’s culture it is only individuals who can stop it.
Earlier this year, in Mali, when Islamists stormed through the nation’s capital, it was reported at first that the great library at Timbuktu had been ransacked. One of the region’s most important collections of artefacts, books and manuscripts had apparently been destroyed by the same barbarians who — in an earlier age — burnt the great library at Alexandria. But after the Islamists were driven back out of the capital certain locals came forward with the true story. As the Islamists had surged into the capital some of Timbuktu’s oldest families had headed straight to the library. They left several hundred manuscripts in the publicly run Ahmed Baba Institute, as a decoy. But secretly they took and preserved for future generations the 300,000 or more ancient documents which these same families had also looked after during the centuries before. As the militias left the manuscripts came back out. War, which is always filled with bad news stories, can occasionally provide good news as well. And it is one such good news story that is, unsurprisingly, about to make it into the cinema.
Early in 2014 Matt Damon and George Clooney lead a strong cast in The Monuments Men. Based on real events, the film documents the activities of Allied personnel put together in the last stages of the second world war in order to rescue works of art which had been stolen by the Nazis and return them to their owners. And in a publicity move not even Hollywood could have arranged, the lead-up to the film’s release has benefited from the best possible promotion: a breaking story that not only echoed the story of the film but revealed how long it can take for a nation’s plundered art to rise back to the surface.
In November police in Munich raided the flat of an 80-year-old resident. Inside was almost a billion dollars’ worth of art — one of the largest collections of 20th-century art and the biggest such find of the postwar era. The run-down flat was jammed full of works by, among others, Picasso, Matisse and Chagall. The man in whose flat this art was found — Cornelius Gurlitt — is the son of a German art collector named Hildebrand Gurlitt. It appears that as well as examples of what the Nazis called entartete Kunst or ‘degenerate art’ his father had held on to works from Jewish German families who fled the Nazis. Having evaded the real-life ‘monument men’ for 70 years, this extraordinary cache of masterworks appears only to have come onto the police radar now thanks to a random cash check carried out by customs authorities on a train from Switzerland to Munich. Which leads to an inevitable question: what other such finds are still out there? Despite the occasional good news story, the fate of artworks lost in war is not a happy one. The museum in Baghdad has seen most of its looted artefacts painstakingly tracked down and returned. But whether the same thing will happen in Syria, who can tell? Perhaps the monuments men will turn up again this time. Perhaps they won’t. In which case some of the artefacts may trickle, damaged, through the bazaars and salerooms of the world for years to come, fated to pass through ignorant hands for nothing or via crooked hands for a ransom.
Like human lives many of these artefacts are not only irreplaceable but outside price. Like humans, once lost they seem to be lost utterly. Except that when it comes to works of art, unlike people, sometimes miracles do occur, and with a piece of painstaking work — or the coincidence of a customs check — sometimes the dead really are brought back to life.