The Search for Lost, Stolen, and Destroyed Art

Writing, by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio

Have you ever lost something, looked for hours in every place it could possibly be, then eventually given up and just accepted the fact that whatever you lost is now gone forever, never to be seen again?


That might be a good way to feel about something like that little souvenir keychain your friend got you from their trip to Europe years ago, but in the art world, all is never lost. When art is lost, stolen, or even destroyed, both amateur and expert unsung heroes dedicate themselves to looking for it.


As archiving physical media becomes more and more difficult thanks to digitization, art recovery is integral to cultural preservation now more than ever. Below we explore some instances of artworks that are yet to be located and how the art recovery process works.

Modigliani’s Seated Man With a Cane (1918). Photo by Brian Smith.
Modigliani’s Seated Man With a Cane (1918) via Artsy photographed by Brian Smith

Lost Art

“Lost art” is a pretty broad term, and it can refer to art that doesn’t necessarily fit into the other categories of “stolen” or “destroyed” because there's no traceable loss event to tie the art to, although it may be “presumed” stolen or destroyed.


Copies of the lost art in question may exist in some cases, but the original is undoubtedly nowhere to be found. Examples of art that would fall into this category include works from ancient times, such as a number of bronze statues by Lysippos, a Greek sculptor from the 4th century (BC). The originals of his statues Eros Stringing the Bow, Agias, Oil Pourer, Hercules, Apoxyomenos, and Alexander the Great all remain missing for unknown reasons, but copies of these works were made by the Romans and still exist today.


Today, it is much easier to trace lost art to its corresponding loss event, whether that be theft or destruction thanks to the dutiful cataloging on behalf of private and public collections.

Stolen Art

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum heist (1990)

It’s a classic heist story straight out of fiction: a shady group of robbers break into a prestigious museum in the dead of night, Mission Impossible-ing their way through lasers and creeping past security guards to take priceless art out of its glass housing without a single fingerprint being left behind. The stolen art is later sold for a profit, kept by the criminals, or destroyed.


While an excellent basis for a mystery novel, art heists happen in the real world more frequently than one might assume.


The most well-known case of art theft in the U.S. is that of the 1990 heist of 13 artworks from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, Massachusetts. On the night of March 18th that year, the thieves, posing as police officers, were admitted by security guards into the museum. The thieves then took about 15 minutes to apprehend and handcuff the two museum guards on duty, taking them to the basement where they wouldn’t be found until the real police arrived on the scene later that morning. The theft took 81 minutes to complete.

Courtyard of Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, 2022, Sintasko via Wikimedia Commons
Courtyard of Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, 2022, Sintasko via Wikimedia Commons

The Stewart Gardner Museum's website claims that it is the “single largest property theft in the world.” The 13 artworks stolen—estimated at a value of $500 million—included three Rembrandts, one of which being Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee (1633), the artist’s only seascape. Additionally among the stolen works was Johannes Vermeer’s The Concert (c. 1664), which is thought to be the most valuable out of all the 13 works taken from Isabella Stewart Gardner’s collection.


Despite following several leads, authorities have still not made any arrests in this ongoing case and none of the 13 artworks have been recovered as of 2023. The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is offering a $10 million reward for “information leading directly to the safe return of the stolen works” in addition to a separate $100,000 reward for the return of one of the stolen works, the Napoleonic eagle finial by Antoine-Denis Chaudet. Stewart Gardner Museum officials have hope that all the stolen artworks will return to their rightful home one day. Could you be the one to recover it?

Wartime art theft and looting

With war comes a devastating cost of casualties and injuries. In addition to the tragic loss of life, important cultural artifacts can be stolen, looted, destroyed, or lost. The loss of meaningful, sacred, or even religious artwork can be another traumatic blow to survivors of war who may have already been stripped from their homelands and normal lives.


The most notable case of wartime art theft that might come to one’s mind is the Nazi theft and subsequent sale/destruction of what they declared as “degenerate art” during WWII. If not declared degenerate, famous and valuable pieces were looted by Nazi Germany for use in Adolf Hitler’s collection.

Portrait of a Young Man, Raphael, 1514
Portrait of a Young Man, Raphael, 1514 via Wikimedia Commons
Portrait of a Young Man, Raphael, 1514 courtesy of Art UK
Portrait of a Young Man, Raphael, 1514 courtesy of Art UK

One such piece was Raphael’s possible self-portrait, Portrait of a Young Man (1514), stolen from the Princes Czartoryski Museum in Kraków, Poland upon the Nazi invasion of the country in 1939. Before being transported to Linz, Austria, where Hitler’s collection was located, Portrait of a Young Man was stored at Wawel Castle in Kraków by Hans Frank, the governor of the General Government. This is where the painting was last officially seen, although it is claimed by Polish officials that the Raphael masterpiece did indeed survive the war.


Portrait of a Young Man’s whereabouts are still unknown, and no color photos of the work existed before it went missing during the war.


More recently, during the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, Russian forces looted a number of Ukraine’s cultural institutions and museums. According to an article from the New York Times, international art experts have that “the plundering may be the single biggest collective art heist since the Nazis pillaged Europe in World War II.” 

Destroyed Art

Life is unpredictable, and natural disasters and other freak accidents can happen at any time. Fires, floods, tornados, earthquakes, and even volcanic eruptions—these events can all (and have) caused permanent damage to priceless artwork.


Everyone remembers where they were during the collapse of the World Trade Center in New York City on September 11, 2001, which tragically took the lives of thousands. But what some may not remember is that Twin Towers’ collapse caused the destruction of over $110 million worth of both public and private art.


According to an article from the National 9/11 Memorial and Museum, “Insurers estimated that the [private] art destroyed on 9/11 was worth at least $100 million,” but due to the many offices and organizations that housed their collections in the Trade Center, “A full tally and appraisal of the lost art and artifacts within the complex will likely never be known.”

South view of WTC before 9-11, 1994 photographed by Michael Chan
South view of WTC before 9-11, 1994 photographed by Michael Chan

Cantor Fitzgerald, a financial services firm that was located from the 101st to 105th floors of the North Tower, lost a number of works by French artist François Rodin in addition to losing the most employees out of any company located in the Towers on the day of the attacks. Cantor Fitzgerald’s art collection within the World Trade Center was so extensive it was sometimes called the “Museum in the sky.”


Public art was a large feature of the World Trade Center’s plaza and it’s estimated that $10 million worth of art was lost when a majority of the seven pieces within the plaza were crushed and burned beyond recognition underneath the massive weight of the fallen debris.


One of these pieces was an iconic Alexander Calder stainless steel red sculpture known as Bent Propeller (1970), also called World Trade Center Stabile. Miraculously, though, about 40% of the piece was recovered from the rubble when the Calder Foundation rallied volunteers together to search for it within the debris pile after it became clear to first responders that no more bodies would be recovered. The fragments of Bent Propeller that were able to be recovered are now located at the National 9/11 Memorial and Museum.

How Does Art Recovery Work?

Art recovery and its success largely depend on the time, place, and circumstances under which the art was lost. The potential recovery of lost or destroyed art is typically reliant on dedicated individuals who deem the art to be of importance. In these cases a crime has not been committed, therefore law enforcement is unable to become involved in the art recovery process.


For example, the stolen and looted art of WWII was recovered on behalf of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program, better known as “Monuments Men.” Much of the stolen and looted art held a cultural significance to the Jewish and European populations, which is why an entire program was dedicated to art recovery in the aftermath of WWII.


Recovery of art that’s been destroyed or damaged can be a little tricky, depending on the circumstances. As previously mentioned, the art destroyed in the 9/11 attacks was largely unable to be saved and was deemed by art insurers as a “total loss.” Without members of the community who were interested in the safe recovery of its fragments, Bent Propeller might not be sitting on display today.

Alexander Calder Bent Propeller, 1970
Alexander Calder Bent Propeller, 1970
The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, 1633, Rembrandt, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, 1633, Rembrandt, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Stolen art is an entirely different ball game. This takes us into the even deeper world of art crime, where the search and recovery process differs greatly. The FBI currently maintains and updates the National Stolen Art File (NSAF) to catalog and track pieces of stolen art that are “valued at $2,000 or more,” according to the U.S. Department of Justice. This is just one small piece of the work being done by the FBI’s Art Crime Team to achieve their mission of recovering stolen art and arresting those involved.


Officially founded in 2004, the Art Crime Team relies on tips from the public and entries into the NSAF. The FBI isn’t the only one who maintains a dedicated lost art database, though.


Private organizations such as Art Loss Register (ALR), founded in London in 1990, operate their own registries of stolen art. The process at ALR works similarly to the FBI’s NSAF. If clients believe a piece of art has been stolen and cast into the art market, they can first search the ALR’s own database to see if it has already been reported as stolen, missing, or looted.  If it hasn’t, the client can register the item within ALR’s database.


From there, the art piece will be included in the team’s search. If the item is subsequently found in the art market, recovery services are able to contact any clients who’ve registered an item on the database. ALR’s lost art database is unique as it encompasses a wide variety of items including “paintings, drawings, sculpture, antiquities, furniture, jewelry, watches and clocks, musical instruments, silverware, coins and medals, ceramics, religious items, arms and armor, tapestries, classic cars, toys, and collectibles.

Another private organization invested in art recovery is aptly named Art Recovery International (ARI), founded in 2013 by lawyer Christopher A. Marinello. Its database, the ArtClaim Database, functions similarly to the aforementioned NSAF and the ALR’s database. The database is checked by “auction houses, dealers, collectors, insurers, and lawyers” as part of their procedures whenever buying or selling art.


As a newer organization, though, ARI is able to stand out from other private art recovery organizations due to its unique policies after a stolen piece of art is located: theft victims and claimants are not required to contact ARI once their item has been found. Claimants are able to use their own designated lawyers and police forces to resolve the claim. ARI believes that “the database concept [is] the most effective way to locate an object on the international art market”.

Gustav Klimt, Portrait of a Lady, 1916-1917
Gustav Klimt, Portrait of a Lady, 1916-1917 © DeAgostini / Getty Images via Barneby's

Why It Matters

Although the loss, theft, and destruction of important artworks that can mean so much to us from a cultural perspective and showcase the very essence of what humanity has to offer is disheartening, there is hope. All around the world average individuals, art historians, law enforcement, and private organizations invest their time and resources into doing whatever they can to see the safe return of priceless pieces of art from well-known and unknown artists.


While cultural preservation may not be at the forefront of everyone’s mind, there is a want and a need for art recovery in today’s unpredictable world. It is also our duty as a species to remember and keep alive the memory of art that has been completely wiped from the face of the earth due to time or disaster.


If nothing else, the art recovery industry is still new and growing—meaning that hopefully, in the future, no more artworks will suffer the tragic fates of some of the pieces covered in this article.

Art can be priceless in a monetary sense, but it is most certainly priceless in a cultural sense. And if it’s lost, someone will be out there to find it.

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