Museums are exhausting. Spend a few hours in the Louvre, the Prado, the British Museum, the Met, or the Uffizi and your legs get heavy as your attention span wanes. There’s so much to see—so many masterpieces from so many millennia— that it’s impossible to take it all in, however hard you try.
But Noah Charney, the author of the new book The Museum of Lost Art, (May 4, $35) is less interested in all the art we have and preoccupied instead with the art that’s been lost.
What’s been destroyed, he writes in the book’s introduction, includes “more masterpieces than all of the world’s museums combined.”
Charney’s premise is fairly uncontroversial: He argues that our understanding of art history is skewed by survivorship bias and that to understand the art we still have, it’s critical to put it in the context of what’s been lost. “Many lost works were more important and celebrated than those that have survived,” he writes.
The book “seeks to correct this prejudice in favor of the survivors,” he continues, “and to resurrect and preserve the memory of the lost.” That’s no small task. Before its introduction is even over, the reader is left wondering how Charney will manage to fit the entirety of civilization’s missing creative output into 280 pages.
Spoiler: He doesn’t. But The Museum of Lost Art is nonetheless a neat trick. It manages to combine Charney’s extensive knowledge of art crime with a light, occasionally frivolous overview of art history. Call it a SparkNotes guide to cultural destruction. Instead of trying to evaluate all that missing art, Charney picks out some of the greatest lost cultural artifacts in history and tells vivid tales of their bitter ends.
Destruction in Its Many Forms
Charney delivers the book in sections. There’s Theft, War, Accident, Iconoclasm and Vandalism, Acts of God, Destroyed by Owner, Buried and Exhumed, and two sections that feel more tenuous: Temporal Works (which, by definition, aren’t lost, because they were meant to disappear), and Lost, or Never Was? The latter includes discussions of fantasy-adjacent arcana such as King Arthur’s Court and Atlantis. As far as content goes, it feels like padding.
The book is strongest when it discusses what happens to art after such disastrous events as war and theft. As such, it’s instructive for anyone considering an art heist. It turns out that (art) crime doesn’t pay.
Why? Well, first, paintings are by definition unique, which makes them very hard to sell once they’ve been stolen. Take the case of a massive painting by Caravaggio, Nativity with Saint Francis and Saint Lawrence. In 1969, thieves allegedly linked to the Sicilian Mafia cut the painting out of its frame in the middle of the night at Palermo’s Church of San Lorenzo. Horrified parishioners discovered the theft the next morning.
There’s speculation, Charney writes, that the painting might have been stolen in order to serve as decoration in a mob boss’s holiday home; in 2009, an informant evidently told police that “it had been damaged during an earthquake while in storage in Sicily, and had subsequently been eaten by rats and pigs at the farm where it was kept.”
Similarly, the works by Vermeer, Manet, Rembrandt, and others stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston were thought, Charney says, to have been impossible to sell. “The gap of over three years between the theft and the first ransom demand suggests,” he writes, “that the thieves originally tried to find a buyer for the works, or had a buyer but that the deal fell through, after which they turned to ransom.”
The Art of War
Some of the greatest art losses have involved war. After winning the first Jewish-Roman War in 70 A.D., the Romans stripped the Temple of Herod in Jerusalem. France’s Napoleon Bonaparte maintained a military unit devoted to art theft— the first ever, Charney claims. And at the end of the Second Opium War in 1860, British and French armies looted Beijing’s Old Summer Palace, an exquisite, 860-acre compound of palaces and gardens. Soon after, the 8th Earl of Elgin ordered his troops to burn it to the ground, obliterating an almost inconceivably grand collection of priceless art and architecture. It took several days, Charney writes, for the palace to burn.
In what’s probably the most wrenching anecdote in the book, Charney details the looting and ultimate destruction of the statue of Zeus at Olympia—one of the ancient wonders of the world.
Built in around 430 B.C., the massive, ivory-plated statue was built over a wooden framework. The figure, which was said to dwarf visitors to the temple, sat on a massive throne, clad in a golden robe covered in a relief of animals and lilies and clutching a massive golden scepter. The Roman Emperor Caligula (who reigned from 37 A.D. to 41 A.D.) “had designs on the statue,” Charney writes, but “fortunately, he was assassinated” before he could transport it to Rome.
Instead, the statue was looted from the temple and ended up in Constantinople. It almost certainly was destroyed in 475 A.D., when a fire engulfed the palace in which it was displayed.
The parallels between the destruction of artifacts in the days of yore and the destruction currently being inflicted on historical monuments by Islamic State and the Taliban are painfully clear. Charney spends some time on Islamic State’s obliteration in Iraq of Nimrud, a 3,500-year-old Assyrian city, and mentions the monumental, 1,700-year-old statues of Buddha that the Taliban dynamited at Bamiyan, Afghanistan, in 2001. (For anyone with a masochistic streak, a video of the statues’ destruction released by NATO is genuinely gut-wrenching.)
And that leads us to the takeaway from Charney’s book. It’s not, as he’d have us believe, that we’re missing out on what once was. The real point is that if we’re not careful, whatever’s left—the embarrassment of riches that currently exhausts us in the Louvre, the Uffizi, the Prado, and the Met—can all be taken away, too.