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Loss, theft and destruction: on the absence of art

18 March 2014

The theft of an artwork, as Katy Barrett pointed out last week, is a glamorous business. The art thief is infinitely more refined than the average cat-burglar. She moves like a shadow, sneaking undetected through richly decorated and alarmed fortresses: galleries, embassies and stately homes. But this is not her true expertise. Hers is the identification and painstaking removal of a work that must remain in priceless, mint condition. It’s not like there’s a market for art that ‘fell off the back of a lorry’. Art thievery has the kind of professional patina that most of us will never experience in the working world.

It’s entertaining, then, to hear that it has taken taken 17 years for technology to advance to a point where police have any hope of tracking down the the thief (or thieves) of Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of a Woman. The Guardian’s article contains a brilliantly redolent line: ‘police appeared flummoxed’. Flummoxed! It takes just one archaic-sounding, rarely-used English word to conjure up an entire squad of confused coppers, who have remained that way for almost two decades.

Feeling entertained, though, is our most superficial reaction to the news of a lost artwork. As with any loss, there’s a sense of pain and romance that drives a deeper rooted, more emotional response, even if you’ve never seen the piece in question. It can be confusing: I would probably have never come across Portrait of a Woman if it hadn’t been stolen. Before reading the Guardian yesterday morning, I didn’t even know it existed. It’s difficult, though, not be upset by its absence.

This sensation of loss is crystallised in pieces like the elegy to objects ‘lost to the nation’ which appeared in The Telegraph last week. It’s echoed in The New York Times, in an article rallying against the possible demolition of the Shabolovka radio tower in Moscow. In London, Tate Britain’s new show, which Martin Oldham has reviewed yesterday, capitalises on the ‘fascination and anxiety’ that comes with trying to comprehend the loss of something that once existed and could be properly perceived in its weighty, physical and complete form.

Wikipedia’s entry on ‘Lost Artworks’ provides a kaleidoscopic viewpoint for you to begin considering how you feel about the masterpieces that have not survived history (it also contains a few lines that will remind you of the bewildered police force of Piacenza, notably: ‘Richard Serra’s 38-ton metal sculpture Equal-Parallel/Guernica-Bengasi (1986), formerly displayed at the Reina Sofia museum, could not be located in 2006′).

Through these we see that the loss of art is a flummoxing event. Though it may be painful, considering the absence of artworks (and what now fills that absence) plays a central role in raising personal questions about the works we hold dear, and the values of those with the power to move or replace them. Movement, exchange, theft and destruction are vital in maintaining the dynamics of culture, even as they make art unavailable to us. We can’t stop the disappearance of art any more than we can prevent death, but, as with death, its loss clears the way for fresh thoughts, new creations, and gives rise to myths that can propel some works into the public consciousness for good.