The best books about stolen art

The Books I Picked & Why

Museum of the Missing

By Simon Houpt

Museum of the Missing

Why this book?

This book looks at thieves, liars, manipulators and of course the art itself. There’s a section on damaged goods, which taps into one of my obsessions about the difference in time and effort creation versus destruction takes. 

It’s full of pictures, ironic given that most of the pieces depicted are lost, never to be found. The Gallery of Missing Art is beautifully reproduced, and includes such masterpieces as Strindberg’s “Night of Jealousy”, so we can look at the works and marvel. But knowing that these pieces are…somewhere? Hidden away for a small audience, or perhaps destroyed? That’s heart-breaking.  


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A Small Unsigned Painting

By Stephen Scheding

A Small Unsigned Painting

Why this book?

A fascinating Australian story about a man who is certain he has unearthed a painting by the renowned Australian painter Lloyd Rees. While this isn’t exactly about stolen art, it is about a painting that went missing, and whose provenance was lost. It depicts just how obsessed we can become with a single image. 


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Headlong

By Michael Frayn

Headlong

Why this book?

This is a book I buy every time I see it in order to give it away. It’s one of my favourite novels and one I re-read every couple of years. It’s about a man who thinks his rich neighbour owns a Brueghel (a missing panel from the “Seasons” series) and his plans to steal it. It captures the nature of art obsession, and of that desire in all of us to discover something new, be it a hidden masterpiece, the solution to a long-unsolved crime, or perhaps a first edition book on our shelves. It’s funny, educational, entrancing and now I have to go and read it again.


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The Plundered Past: The Traffic in Art Treasures

By Karl Ernest Meyer

The Plundered Past: The Traffic in Art Treasures

Why this book?

This fascinating book not only looks at art stolen by thieves, but also at the business of art museums and what constitutes moral collection. It was written in 1973, so things have changes drastically as far as how we perceive where a treasure belongs, but Meyer already argues for the return of the so-called Elgin Marbles, for example. He has a brilliant table at the end, listing major art thefts 1911-1972 and including comments, all of which deserve a story of their own. For example: 

1953, Rodin bronze, stolen by a student who wanted to “live with it”. 

1959, Daumier painting, in the pocket of a suitcase that was stolen from a train. 

1971, Titian “Holy Conversation”, recovered after dramatic car chase. Thieves also drank communion wine. 


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Stolen Treasure: the Hunt for the World’s Lost Masterpieces

By Konstantin Akinsha

Stolen Treasure: the Hunt for the World’s Lost Masterpieces

Why this book?

I really love this book and could write an entire short story collection inspired by it. It’s the first time I heard about the Amber Room, one of those things that once you know about it, you are obsessed. The authors lead us into caves, through basements, across borders, as they track down the pathways of stolen treasures. The book tells us about the provenance of missing artworks, and what it means to have that space on the wall. 

All of these books have an element of ‘the missing wall’ about them and perhaps that’s one of the things that fascinates me the most about the subject. Sometimes what isn’t there is more meaningful than what is. 


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