Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Richter's Skater: Paintings Lost and Found

Found: Gerhard Richter, 'Eisläuferin' (Skater) - detail
Why should the discovery of a lost painting be so exciting? I've been a fan of Gerhard Richter's figurative paintings ever since I bought a Sonic Youth record with his candle on the cover twenty-five years ago, but I'd never heard of his 'Eisläuferin' (Skater) until this morning. I suppose the fact that the picture is potentially worth £3 million makes this newsworthy, but there's something compelling about stories of paintings lost and found.

Lost: Georgia O'Keeffe, 'Special No.21' 1916
I was in Santa Fe, New Mexico, when Georgia O'Keeffe's painting 'Special No.21' was stolen from the Museum of Fine Arts. By all accounts someone simply walked in and pocketed the picture, which isn't very big, and it was gone. At the time I was selling art at a local gallery, so I was used to the constant coming and going of artworks, but this was different. Here was a painting that had been part of the public realm - a shared pleasure - and someone had taken it from US.

One might argue that the same happens when a less enlightened collector buys a painting at auction and then squirrels it away for their own personal enjoyment (or, worse, stores it in the hope that it will appreciate in value).

Found: Munch, 'The Scream'
The FBI may have wished that O'Keeffe was still alive, as she herself tracked down three paintings stolen from Alfred Stieglitz's New York gallery in the 1940s. It took her thirty years, but in 1975 she spotted them at the Princeton Gallery of Fine Arts and sued successfully for their return. When a painting is stolen there is always a chance that it will be recovered, as happened most famously with 'Mona Lisa'. Two versions of Edvard Munch's 'The Scream' have been seized from museums, and both have been recovered.

Gerhard Richter, 'Eisläuferin' (Skater) early 60s
In the case of Richter's 'Skater', it was believed for years that the painting had been destroyed, leaving the world with only a black and white reproduction, so this discovery is more akin to a return from the dead. Every artist's catalogue has some gaps like this, where pictures have been destroyed or have simply vanished. I posted last year about Churchill's refusal to send the National Gallery's collection to Canada during World War II, and an incident later in the war confirmed that he had made the right decision.

Lost: Eric Ravilious, 'Light Vessel & Duty Boat' 1940
In August 1942 a merchant vessel carrying works of art from Britain to South America was sunk by a U-boat. In all, 96 paintings were lost, including three by Paul Nash, and one each by Graham Sutherland, Eric Ravilious and John Piper. They are unlikely to reappear.

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