Nonfiction — print. Sterling, 2006. 192 pgs. Library copy.
Whereas coffee table books typically focus on a particular artist and the breadth of his/her works, this book focuses on those pieces that have been stolen from museums, action houses, and private homes around the world.
The title of this book comes from the mythical museum of all the stolen works of the world known as the “Lost Museum” or the “Museum of the Missing” to those who investigate art theft; the picture on the cover comes from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston where the largest art theft in the world remains unsolved.
Gardner, when she turned her collection into a museum, required that nothing about the collection be charged – paintings cannot be sold or moved. Empty frames of the stolen works have hung in the museum since the theft beckoning visitors to ponder over the whereabouts of these missing works. Having visited the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, I can attest that it gives the whole museum an eerie feeling. I was constantly distracted from those paintings that remain by the empty frames.
Subtitled “A History of Art Theft”, Houpt does a wonderful job tracing art theft throughout history from wartime plundering to the modern-day heists we’re used to seeing play out in the movies. Not only does Houpt examine why art disappears but he also explains why paintings, statues, and antiquities are not returned when found. The British Museum wanted to return art stolen from Jews by the Nazis but the British Supreme Court said the cultural value of this art outweighed any moral obligation to right the wrongs of the world. Of course, righting this wrong means the British Museum might be compelled to return antiquities plundered from Egypt. Interestingly enough, when I visited this particular museum, there was a large display about how the museum is working to prevent wartime looting from Iraq.
I certainly recommend this book if you are at all interested in art theft (or art history). It’s a great overview of the problem, summarizing historical and contemporary aspects with equal attention. I really appreciated the glossary of missing works (at least, those known as most thefts go unreported) with colored pictures and information on where and how the works were stolen.