Updated: Jan 28
Art has, from its inception, doubled as a portal that transports you away from reality.
Take Caravaggio’s striking ‘Judith Beheading Holofernes’ for instance. Lay your eyes on the looming painting and you’re sucked into the drama, turned into a bystander watching the melodramatic scene frozen mid-action. Stand in front of the humongous portrait of Van Gogh by Francis Bacon, and you’re suddenly transported into the grisly interiors of the mind of a painter of beauty.
Now imagine going into your long-since-locked-up attic to fix a leaky pipe and finding the very same ‘Judith Beheading Holofernes’, and it turns out to be an original copy painted by Caravaggio himself. That’s exactly what happened to a Frenchman from Toulouse a few years ago.
As it happens, some of these remarkable artworks go beyond just taking their viewers on a journey, many of them unwittingly embarking on adventures of their own. They travel far and wide across countries, changing hands from petty thieves, pirates, art smuggling syndicates, and even unassuming bargain-chasers looking to spend a few bucks on a nice-ish looking painting in a thrift store.
Last month, in October, for instance, when the Metropolitan Museum, New York organised an exhibition of celebrated American Modernist Jacob Lawrence’s famous series "Struggle: From the History of the American People", little did they know they were also putting out a lost-and-found ad for one of its five missing panels.
A visitor noticed that the paintings in the series looked familiar to one owned by her neighbour. When the elderly couple —who had bought the painting at a Christmas art fair—got their painting examined, it, in fact, turned out to be one of the five missing panels.
The painting which hasn’t been seen publicly since 1960 was reunited with the rest of the series, and will be displayed at the Met for the duration of the Exhibition.
This is only one of the many twists of fate that have led to the recovery of long lost valuable art. Here’s looking at some famous art by celebrated artists that were stolen mysteriously, and were found under even more bizarre circumstances.
Not Just Another Brick in the Wall
In December, an original Gustav Klimt, one of the world’s most sought-after stolen artworks, which had been missing for over 20 years, was found in the Ricci Oddi Modern Art Gallery in Italy from where it had vanished, hidden inside one of the walls!
The ‘Portrait of a Lady’ had been one of the most wanted lost artworks in the world, as shortly before its disappearance, it had been discovered that the painting was made over another painting previously believed to be lost, making it the only “double” Klimt known to the art world.
A Muse, the Mafia, and an Art Detective
Picasso’s ‘Portrait of Dora Maar’ was stolen off of a Saudi sheikh’s Yacht in 1919. It resurfaced 20 years later, in 2018, wrapped in black garbage bags, delivered at the doorstep of Arthur Brand, nicknamed ‘the Indiana Jones of the Art World’.
Brand, who is known for hunting down and recovering famous stolen art, first became aware of the painting and its disappearance in 2015. Thus began the long search for the famous portrait of Picasso’s lover (that had hung in the artist’s house until his death in 1975). Brand discovered that the painting had been in circulation for years in the underworld, bouncing between terrorists, the mafia and the international jet-set since its disappearance. After much effort, Brand was able to make contact with the last owner looking to sell the painting and ultimately secure it.
The Unusual Suspects
‘Woman Ochre’, painted in 1955, was cut out of its frame and stolen from the University of Arizona Art Museum in 1985. For 32 years the painting was at large, with the authorities having no leads to the robbery.
It was only in 2017 that the painting was recovered when the nephew of a deceased mid-western couple was liquidating his aunt’s estate. The painting, it was found, had been hanging in Jerry and Rita Atler’s bedroom all these years.
News of the sensational discovery spread like wildfire, but the people who knew the Atlers could hardly believe the amiable public school teacher and his wife could be capable of pulling off such a heist. Upon investigation, it was confirmed by the Arizona police that the Atlers were indeed the thieves who robbed the museum all those years ago in 1985.
The ‘Woman Ochre’, upon its recovery, had to be meticulously restored before it was reunited with the rest of the paintings in the University of Arizona Art Museum, as its stint in the Atler home for over thirty years had left it worse for wear.
All Publicity is Good Publicity
Da Vinci’s masterpiece Mona Lisa is considered the most famous painting in the world today. But a large portion of its fame is the result of the frenzy that followed its disappearance from the Louvre in 1911. Until this time, the relatively small and unassuming painting was only one of the many Da Vincis that the museum housed.
The Painting which was stolen by a handyman working at the museum, sent the authorities into a frantic hunt that would go on for two years before the perpetrator, Vincenzo Perugia, was caught and the painting was returned to the Louvre. In this time, Mona Lisa’s face was printed across newspapers, magazines, pamphlets and grew in fame to become one of the most recognisable faces in art to ever exist. So much so that, while she was still missing, queues started forming outside the Louvre just so people could see the empty space!
So, what if Perugia had decided to steal some other painting that day, would some other painting, by another artist, have the honour of being the most famous painting in the world today?
Lost, but Not Found
While chance and quick thinking have led to many masterpieces being recovered, but not all masterpieces are that lucky.
Picasso’s ‘Head of Harlequin’, for one, stolen in 2012 met an untimely death, what with the mother of the robbers burning it for fear of the police. Another masterpiece by the artist, ‘Le Pigeon Aux Petit Pois’, stolen in 2010 was lost forever when the thief left it in a garbage dump that was cleared before the authorities could get to it. The fate of the painting is still a mystery, ten years later.
But it's Caravaggio’s Nativity with St Francis and St Lawrence that disappeared without a trace from its place above the altar at a church in Palermo, Italy in 1969, that remains, to this day, the most sought after stolen art in the world, with its theft considered one of the greatest unsolved mysteries in the art world.
Some great works of art are surrounded by mystery, others carry stories of suspense within them. Read here about these frozen cliffhangers and the portrayal of suspense in art.