Comedian Steven Wright once quipped about visiting “the museum where they had all the heads and arms from the statues that are in all the other museums.”
Wright’s joke immediately came to mind when I started reading “The Museum of Lost Art,” in which author Noah Charney—a scholar, journalist, lecturer and founder of the non-profit research organization, the Association for Research into Crimes Against Art (ARCA)—asks the reader to imagine a museum of lost art, one which “would contain more masterpieces than all the world’s museums combined.”
Of course, in contrast to Wright’s joke, Charney work is decidedly serious, and “The Museum of Lost Art”—the follow-up to “The Art of Forgery” (Phaidon, 2015)—is a fascinating “alternative” trip through the history of art, told through the stories of works that have been stolen, destroyed or otherwise lost to the world.
“It is important to study what has been lost and why, to understand how art can best be preserved in the future, to appreciate what has survived, and just how delicate is that miraculous fraction of mankind’s creative history that has endured,” notes the author in the book’s introduction. “It is important, also, to recognize that the art blessed with survival is not necessarily the art that was most important when it was first displayed.”
Charney points to Rogier van der Weyden’s four paintings for the Golden Chamber of Brussels Town Hall—aka Justice Cycle—as perhaps the ultimate example of lost works that were more important in their time than the artist’s works that endured. “It is easy to forget that works we associate with great artists were not necessarily their greatest, most influential creations,” writes the author.
In that sense, “The Museum of Lost Art” is a little depressing; it’s a reminder that art is fragile and that there are all manner of ways in which it can be lost, even while on display in world-renowned museums. For example, Charney relates the story of what is arguably the most famous unsolved art theft in history, which took place on St. Patrick’s Day in 1990, when thieves made off with works valued at $500 million from the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum in Boston. Never mind what happened on January 25, 2006, when a visitor to Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, England, managed to shatter three Qing dynasty Chinese vases in the wake of tripping on his shoelace and falling down a staircase.
On the other hand, “The Museum of Lost Art” is uplifting in that it highlights works that were thought to have been lost but were later found, as was the case with Leonardo da Vinci’s Madonna of the Yarnwinder (which was stolen in 2003 and recovered in 2007), as well as Salvator Mundi, which “was part of the art collection of the English king Charles I but disappeared, only to resurface in 2005, bought for a pittance because its owner did not realize it was a Leonardo.”
More notably, still, the book takes a few compelling and unexpected turns when it raises philosophical questions like: Is some art better off lost?
Charney highlights how the novel “Go Set a Watchman” (written in 1957 by Harper Lee, author of “To Kill a Mockingbird”), was published in 2015, seemingly against the author’s wishes. “The novel, while a bestseller, was critically panned and negatively impacted Lee’s reputation as an author,” notes Charney.
Then there’s the Next Rembrandt Project—a collaboration between Delft University of Technology, the Mauritshuis in the Hague, the Rembrandt House Museum in Amsterdam, and Microsoft—which illustrates the possibilities of using technology to create new versions of art that has been lost (or might have been).
In April 2016 the collaborators unveiled a digitally printed portrait in the style of Rembrandt, one with a fictional face “based on a facial recognition algorithm and computer hybridization of real Rembrandt subjects,” relates Charney, a work that “thoroughly impressed art critics and art historians.”
So while the world has already been treated to a Museum of Bad Art and a Museum of Art Fakes—the latter of which displays works by Han van Meegeren, who Jonathan Lopez dubbed The Man Who Made Vermeers—it’s possible there may soon be a museum that displays digital recreations of long-lost works.
In the meantime, we’ll have to occupy ourselves with enjoying “The Museum of Lost Art,” The Next Rembrandt and, yes, the deadpan jokes of Steven Wright, who still likes to tell audiences about the “time I went to a museum where all the work had been done by children. They had all the paintings up on refrigerators.”