Artistic masterpieces, because they represent a considerable market value, are often the object of intense covetousness. Looting, theft, and illicit trafficking are legion in this sector, as the sums involved are colossal and artistic institutions are often more vulnerable than banks or other institutions that accumulate wealth and stimulate the fervor of criminals.
Today, let's look back at the tragic destiny of 5 prestigious and priceless artworks that have disappeared from the radars of the art world.
Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) was a French painter and sculptor considered as the precursor of the realist movement. His most famous paintings (L'Origine du Monde, Le Désespéré, Les Baigneuses...) revolutionized the history of Art while dividing critics by their opposition to the academism and idealism prevalent at that time.
The Stone Breakers is a masterpiece created in 1849 measuring 65 x 94 in. It shows two men working on the extraction of minerals in front of the landscape of a wild hill. Turning their backs to the observer, they seem to be absorbed by their labor. There are many symbols of the working class of this period (wicker basket, pot, pouch, piece of black bread...). This subject is not simply a fantasy of the author's imagination, as he declares having met these workers during a walk, and then kindly asked them if they could pose for him.
This painting is considered to be a basis of the realist movement, because the painter describes reality as he perceives it, without embellishments or make-up. After several transmissions between private collections, this painting was finally acquired by the Old Masters Painting Gallery of Dresden (Germany), a city that was the target of numerous Allied bombings in 1945.
Many people believe that this masterpiece perished in these events, but some have doubts. Indeed, the Red Army, upon its arrival in the city, used the occasion to "confiscate" most of the works as war booty. In the mid-1950s, the Russian authorities decided to return these works "borrowed" from Germany, but Courbet's painting was not part of the lot.
So, is it destroyed forever, or can we still dream of a sudden reappearance?
Caravaggio (1571-1610) was an Italian painter world-famous for his profound universe which revolutionized 17th century painting, notably thanks to a clever fusion between classical naturalism and brutal realism. He influenced many of his contemporaries, and became an inexhaustible source of inspiration for many artists.
The disappeared work in question here is entitled "The Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence". Realized in 1609, only one year before the death of the painter, this oil on canvas displays impressive dimensions (106 × 78 in ). This masterpiece of popular art is composed of 7 characters. The Virgin Mary is in the center, and contemplates her divine child surrounded by an angel, Joseph and several Saints. The scene takes place in a particularly dark and enigmatic atmosphere, faithful to the singularity of its author.
Preserved at the San Lorenzo Oratory in Palermo, Sicily, this work was stolen in 1969. On October 18 in the morning, the frame of the artwork was found stripped of its canvas, roughly cut out with a sharp object. Very quickly, the Sicilian mafia became the investigators' preferred trail, as it was very powerful on the island at that time. A specialized police brigade was deployed by the State to solve this theft, but turbulence between mafia families made their search more complex. A Mafia informant indicated that the work had definitely disappeared, eaten by rats. Today, after more than 50 years of investigation, this disappearance remains (and will surely remain) unsolved.
Van Gogh's reputation is now well established, because his work was able to upset the artistic canons of his time, while retaining the good graces of public opinion today. Painter cursed with a tormented life and dead at 37 years old following a succession of strange events, some of his artworks will have also inherited his curse, as shown by the missing work that we will talk about.
Poppy Flowers a painting representing, on a sober background, a bouquet of bright yellow flowers and three red poppies arranged in a dark vase. Even if this piece is obviously not the artist's best known, it is still a post-impressionist masterpiece due to its delicate realization and characteristic of his creative genius. Estimated at over $50 million, its disappearance makes it one of the most expensive missing pieces in history.
And its disappearance, let's talk about it: what a story! After the artist's death, the work will cross the Mediterranean, from Paris to Cairo, to join the collections of the Mohamed Khalil Museum. It is at this moment that the tragic fate of this beautiful bouquet will be sealed. On July 4, 1977, the artwork disappears from the museum, without really knowing why, since the Egyptian government maintains an opaque blur on this affair. Moving the collections between different palaces has certainly allowed thieves to steal the painting without difficulty. In any case, the work was finally found in mysterious circumstances in Kuwait. 33 years after this event, stupefaction! In 2010, Poppy Flowers disappears again, this time in broad daylight! A security flaw and serious negligence from the museum and staff were discovered by the investigators. An internal complicity is suspected among the museum's employees, who allowed this famous theft to take place. This time no miracles, the painting is still missing, and the investigators seem to be at a standstill.
Rembrandt (1606-1669) was a Dutch painter and engraver considered one of the most prominent artists of the Dutch School, and more generally in the history of Art as a whole. Legendary representative of the Dutch Golden Century, he produced more than 1000 artworks, including numerous self-portraits throughout his career, which have given art historians access to particularly eloquent fragments of memory.
The Storm on the Sea of Galilee is an obscure piece, characteristic of the artist's work. Measuring 62.99 in × 50.39 in , it is the only work by Rembrandt that deals with an aquatic subject. This painting illustrates a biblical epic: the miracle of the calmed storm on Lake Tiberias, depicting Jesus and his 12 apostles, mishandled in a makeshift boat harassed by the violent waves of the ocean. Many analysts consider that Rembrandt integrated himself into the composition, as the character observing the viewer, at the lower center of the painting.
This masterpiece was stolen during what has been described as "the greatest art theft of all time" from the Gardner Museum in Boston, USA, in March 1990. The thieves took 13 artworks of considerable importance (including a Vermeer, a Manet, several Degas...) from the institution, for an estimated booty of more than 500 million dollars. Thirty years after this robbery of the century, none of these works has reappeared, and the mystery remains (definitively?) whole. The institution is offering a $5 million reward to anyone who manages to get their hands on the stolen works. This is a modest reward for half a billion dollars' worth of loot, but it is enough to motivate many enthusiastic detectives.
Claude Monet (1840-1926) was a French painter, pioneer of Impressionism. Very obsessive about beauty and feeling, he produced a huge number of works, sometimes even in monumental formats, most often representing scenes of dreamlike nature or industrial landscapes sublimated by the prism of a sensitive meteorology. He produced numerous series, where he devoted himself to a single motif, observed and depicted at different times of the day, or different seasonalities. This is notably the case of the Water Lilies (about 250 canvases), Rouen Cathedral (28 canvases), or the London Views (about 50 canvases) mentioned here.
Charing Cross Bridge is a piece created by Monet in 1901, part of the London Views series, and depicting Hungerford Bridge through the thick fog of the Thames. Its serial nature nevertheless compromises its market value, since another work in this series (Charing Cross Bridge, 1903) sold for over $27 million at Sotheby's in November 2019.
The 1901 work was stolen in the middle of the night from the Kunsthal Museum in Rotterdam (Netherlands) in 2012, along with several other large-scale works, for a total estimated value of between 150 and 200 million euros. Two young Romanian recidivists were quickly suspected by Dutch investigators. This lead will prove to be the right one. Unfortunately, the investigations will lead to the arrest of the two authors and 4 accomplices (including the mother of one of the accused), but will not lead to the recovery of the stolen paintings. The mother of the author considered to be the mastermind of the robbery will confess to having burned the artworks in her wood stove, although this version does not meet with the unanimous approval of the investigators. Today, 8 years after the robbery, these stolen treasures have still not reappeared.
Whether you feel like an investigator or not, discover our selection of artworks inspired by the Great Masters, guaranteed not to disappear enigmatically!