Curious History : Stolen Art

I have a question: has anyone ever seen a Rembrandt seascape painting before?  I mean with your own eyes?  I bet you haven’t since the only seascape the great painter ever painted curiously vanished.  Actually, it was stolen!  It’s whereabouts are just as much a mystery to the world as the Amber Room of Russia.

Of all the things that are stolen in this world, art seems to have some of the most intriguing stories behind their thefts.  Happily, most are found and returned to their rightful place in situ.  Some, like Rembrandt’s seascape, remain lost to history.  Here are some others that have been taken with a little curious mystery and myth surrounding some!

To start with, the Mona Lisa by Leonardo Da Vinci was stolen in 1911 which sparked its popularity…and controversy!  Before high tech security hit the Louvre and the great painting was placed behind bullet proof glass, the painting was just one of Leonardo’s paintings hanging in the prestigious salon, its small size not really drawing that much attention.  Then, when an employee stolen the now famous painting right off the wall.  The painting was not even noticed missing until the next day!  The thief was caught two years later but not until after he made many fakes and duplicates of the painting to sell!  Though, for some, there isn’t a shadow of a doubt that the painting is the original, yet some conspiracy theorist believe the famous lady behind the lasers and glass is nothing more than a charlatan!

This is not the only painting by Da Vinci that has been stolen.  Leda and the Swan disappeared from France sometime after 1623. The Battle of Anghiari, considered “The Lost Leonardo”, is still thought to be hidden behind later frescoes in Florence.  And Leonardo is not the only great Renaissance artist to suffer.  Raphael, a master and a tragic loss for art, having died at 26, has lost many of his paintings to history.

A Van Gogh piece Painter on the Way to Tarascon was one of many paintings confiscated during WWII by Nazi looters.  However, this art was not stolen to tribute and exemplify Germany, but to publicly destroy as degenerative and insulting to the Third Reich.  This colorful painting was burned in a large bonfire in Paris in 1942 and the Nazi aim was reversed unto itself.  To this day, the results of the Nazi looting can still be felt and is still remembered as close-minded and malicious.

Famous works of art were centerpieces of interest during WWII.  Hitler fancied himself a great lover of art and wanted the world to know it.  Within his power thousands of incredible and irreplaceable works were either kept for the Nazi’s museums or they are lost forever.  A particular piece that Hitler cherished was The Astronomer by Vermeer.  It was meant to store and display all of the plundered European art.  A black swastika was stamped on the back of The Astronomer, where it remains today.

Hitler also had a thing for alter pieces.  Two very beautiful and well known pieces were taken in the 1930’s since Hitler believed the artists, Van Eyck and Stoss, were both German and therefore there works belonged to Germany.  Before the invasion of Poland, the altars were taken apart and separated and then hidden from the looting Nazis..but they were eventually found.  The Van Eyck was never completely recovered since the lower panel was ransomed and the thief died before he told anyone where the panel was.

A particular Michelangelo sculpture was not only taken by the Nazis…but also by Napoleon!  The Madonna of Burges is a remarkable statue (to me, everything Michelangelo did was incredible) and it’s journal is just that much more so.  It was purchased by a wealthy cloth merchant family and moved to Bruges. Napoleon ordered the people of Bruges to pack up the Madonna and ship it to France.  The sculpture was returned after the defeat of Napoleon.  The second removal occurred in 1944 when German soldiers were retreating from the area.  The soldiers smuggled the Madonna to Germany in a group of mattresses transported by a Red Cross truck.  Two years later the sculpture was found by Allied forces and returned to Bruges.

This piece is not specifically about Nazi looting (though I know it’s sounds that way) but that is only because WWII is a period solely responsible for most of history’s stolen art.  But it doesn’t get much better.

One of Canada’s largest art thefts resulted in the disappearance of 18 paintings including Delcroix and Rembrandt’s Landscape with Cottages. Rembrandt’s infamous seascape The Storm on the Sea of Galilee was stolen in 1990 in the biggest art robbery in history, totaling 300 million dollars.  None have been recovered.

In recent years, Munch’s The Scream, in all its variations, has been stolen from multiple galleries, all, thankfully, were recovered.

It’s a shame that so much art has been lost, but more importantly that the art is being remembered because it is stolen, lost, or destroyed.

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