Book Review: The Museum of the Missing

The other week I spent a day at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, MA. The collection of art is impressive especially in the regard that it is the personal collection of the museum’s namesake, Isabella Stewart Gardner, who began seriously collecting in 1891 until her death in 1924.

Gardner was intimately involved in the design of the museum building as well as the arrangement of the pieces throughout the building. She created an endowment to support the operation and maintenance of the museum outlined with specific stipulations - the arrangement of her art would be permanently exhibited without modification. Thus, the state of the museum exist almost exactly as it did at the time of her death. This has created a striking scene, as thirteen pieces of art were famously lifted from the museum in 1990 - due to Gardners wishes the frames of the stolen pieces still exist in their original spot, albeit without their raison d’être inside.

It’s a bizarre sight to see - a large empty frame, with the whereabouts of its former resident currently unknown. This piqued my interest into art theft - how can a unique and infamous object be stolen for profit? To make art thievery lucrative, there must be a market in which the thief can fence the piece for a large payday - how is this a sustainable market? How can thieves maintain the condition of the art? How can thieves transport the piece of art to a prospective buyer? How can thieves contact prospective buyers? How can buyers be sure they are buying the authentic piece and not a clever forgery? What’s the purpose of buying a stolen piece of art, knowing the potential of potential observers to report to authorities (and possibly for a handsome reward!).

I figured there would be many resources to learn this information, but surprisingly there does not seem to be a large interest in art theft (if using the number and variance of books on Amazon as a measurement proxy). I picked up the most recommended book on the subject The Museum of the Missing: The High Stakes of Art Crime by Simon Houpt. The book was not quite what I expected, but its format was much appreciated. Almost each page is accompanied by images of the stolen works of art, which really adds to the understanding the impact of their absence from their rightful owners. The book moves quickly and covers many different formats of art theft as well as the current state of affairs in art crime prevention. I was primarily interested in the economics of the art market and the methods in which art thieves exchange their loot with buyers - this wasn’t really covered, but that may have been due to lack of insight into the black art market (which I’ll talk about in a few paragraphs). An appendix of stolen art is included, which is a wonderful resource to look through but also serves as an alarming indicator of just how much art has been stolen.

The book covers art theft via the plunders of war, including perhaps two of the most well-known “art thieves” in history - Hitler and Napoleon. Each had their own motivations of pursuing art from the regions they conquered - for Hitler, he hoped to rid the world of art pieces he deemed “degenerate” such as Impressionists, Cubists, and Expressionists and turn the focus of German citizens to art with German roots that “celebrated a simplistically heroic ideal of man.” Napoleon and his director-general of French museums Baron Dominique-Vivant Denon took art while storming through Europe for the glory of the French people while also appreciating the meaning of the art itself - Napoleon understood that Egyptian art inspired the Greeks and Romans, which in turn inspired the rest of Western Europe and beyond. On defeat of both leaders debates ensued about the rightful owners of the stolen art pieces, and they became sought-after assets in reparation discussions (which is why the Rosetta Stone, discovered by Napoleons troops, is now in the British Museum).

In addition to art theft of pieces from museums and private collections, the book also covers other peculiar cases of “missing art.” Insurance fraud is a popular way for art purveyors to retain their pieces while also liquidating the asset value. Since the value of these pieces are largely subjective, policies may be taken out that give larger payouts than what the piece is actually worth - thus, the art is worth more lost than found. Art may also be stolen for political reasons - for example, Chagall’s Study for Over Vitebsk was stolen and would only be returned under then condition that Israel and Palestine achieve peace.

The Museum of the Missing makes it alarmingly clear that art theft and provenance is not a priority for police organizations around the world. This may be due to the perception of art as exclusively for wealthy citizens, so pursing its theft would be a waste of taxpayer money. Many art buyers would rather not deal with the messiness of provenance as it may cost them the ability to purchase pieces that they desire, so the rate of self-reporting stolen art is not high. There is largely no cooperation between international teams on the topic of art theft, with different countries placing varying amounts of emphasis on the pursuit of stolen art - and thus varying amounts of budgets allocated to recovering stolen art. There is a small number of teams dedicated to art crime investigation - as of the time of the books writing, there was a single person on a local police force in North America that has the full-time job of tracking down stolen art. Only in 2005 did the FBI create a specific art crime team (deemed the Art Crime Team, or ACT). Further, museums may not have a vested interest in dealing with issues of provenance of art pieces - in late 2002, major cultural institutions such as the Louvre, the Hermitage, the Rijksmuseum, the MoMA and the Whitney issued a “declaration opposing wholesale repatriation of cultural artifacts seized centuries ago.

Most surprisingly, there doesn’t seem to be a mature central database of missing artwork! There is the Art Loss Register and other smaller databases, but they seem to be frustratingly fragmented. There isn’t a strict practice of checking these databases before purchasing a piece of art, which would help immensely to quell the lucrativeness of art theft.

I really enjoyed this book and its look at the wide cross-section of “art crime”, complete with war-time plundering, black-market collectors, and other fraudulent activities with priceless cultural artifacts. The author does a good job of advocating for increasing the amount of time and money police forces spend on deterring and pursuing art thieves and laments the negative affects the prevalence of art theft has on museums and displays of art. The book includes a vast amount of images to complement the discussions of different methods of art crime, bringing to life the daring heists and the insidious scams. It also personally ignited more interest in the protection of cultural artifacts and the art itself.