In the News: Could I Find a Priceless Piece of Art?

Katy Thompson, Associate Director of Education

A TikTok video purporting to have found a Picasso painting at a Goodwill store has sent the Internet spinning: are you really going to find a Picasso painting at a thrift store? The honest answer? Sure, why not. Surprisingly, the art world is missing quite a few artworks, and they often turn up in the randomest of places, from grandma’s attic to the 2009 Stuart Little movie (Róbert Berény’s  painting, Sleeping Lady with Black Vase, lost in 1929, was used as a prop and recognized by an art historian watching the movie with his daughter). Museums don’t misplace or lose artworks (we hope!) in the same way we misplace or lose socks, but artworks can get stolen or destroyed. So, how do we know what we have, what was (presumed) destroyed, and what is missing?

Katja Oxman, American, b. German, b. 1942. With Spring Rain. Copperplate etching and aquatint, 2018. Gift of the Artist, 2019.147. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

Museums operate databases, which host all of the pertinent information on the works in their collection, from the provenance (the history and ownership record of the artwork) to where it is stored in the museum. If a work goes on loan to another museum, or is deaccessioned and auctioned for funds, this information goes into the database and becomes part of the provenance; the museum can track the work and pass that information to the next owner, whether private or public. While it is not out of the realm of possibility for a print to be mislaid in a drawer or a painting stored in an incorrect location, the museum record shows its presence in the collection. If a museum suffers a fire or flooding, the database helps them account for all of their assets. But, this is only for known artworks, ones we have at least a passing record of; what about those completely unknown or previously held only in private collections? While we can never say that we know for sure that a catalogue raisonné of an artist is complete, particularly for non-contemporary artists, often through letters and other primary documents art historians are able to piece together an accurate listing of all the known artworks by an artist. These works are described so that they may be reliably identified by third parties, such as an art historian watching Stuart Little with their child or an x-ray of one painting revealing another below it. Fastidious documentation, both on paper and digitally, ensures that we know what we have, or what we should have. Of course, this assumes that a work has passed through a museum or cultural institution at some point in its history. A work that has only ever exchanged hands privately, following the initial sale, may have little to no record on it, making it much more difficult to track and more likely to be categorized as lost.

A lost artwork is an original piece of art that credible sources (art historians, critics, and museum people) indicate once existed, as proven through provenance records, but that cannot be accounted for in museums or private collections, for various reasons. The most dramatic of those reasons is theft. If you’ve browsed Netflix lately, you may have come across the documentary on the theft of 13 paintings from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, all of which have yet to be recovered. With blue-chip names like Rembrandt, Manet, and Vermeer, a thief can’t just re-sell the artworks through established auction houses like Christie’s or Sotheby’s; instead, they would be handing them over to a private collector or a black market dealer. The FBI maintains a list, the National Stolen Art File, of stolen art and cultural property and various recovery efforts have been undertaken in response to major loss scenarios, such as the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Program (see: Monuments Men) following World War II. Artworks, both public and private, looted by the Nazis have been discovered in private homes, bunkers, and even abandoned mines. Various artworks from this time period continue to be unaccounted for, and you never know what you could stumble across on a walk in the woods! War continues to play a role in the loss of cultural objects. Most recently, the Middle East has seen a rise in smuggling of artifacts, and their disappearance into both public and private collector’s hands. Once these artworks pass out of proper documentation, they can be extremely difficult to track and locate.

While art theft is definitely the most interesting scenario, lost artworks can also be classified as those deliberately or accidentally (through neglect or ignorance) destroyed. We did another “In the News” piece on the fire at the Museu Nactional in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, sharing the cost to the public of losing heritage. Many museums have suffered fires, mishaps, and flooding that have led to the loss of artworks. Artworks have been destroyed in plane crashes, bombings, earthquakes, and even lightening strikes. Artworks have suffered purposeful vandalism by the public and purposeful destruction by their creator. While a museum does everything they can to properly care and conserve their collection, stuff happens. While the artworks lost in these scenarios often have no chance of re-emerging, some do! What we thought was looted and destroyed is found in a private collection, or what we thought burned in a fire reappears in a different storage space that was untouched by the natural disaster. Some artworks which we thought destroyed by the artist themselves have also turned up, often under another work! In this case, what was thought destroyed was simply missing. Today, artists like Katja Oxman (whose print is pictured above) may choose to gift one work from each edition to museums to create an archive that protects their legacy, informs the number of prints in each edition, and acts as a visual recording of their complete catalogue. Many artists also create foundations that are entrusted with protecting their work and denouncing “found” artworks as fakes and/or forgeries.

While the likelihood of you stumbling upon a Picasso or Rembrandt in your local Goodwill isn’t high, it’s never zero, either. The next time you’re at a garage sale or thrift store be sure to take a second glance, you never know what your eyes might uncover.

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