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Uncovering the lost and stolen works of famous artists

Find out about the mysterious disappearances of works by Frida Kahlo, Tracey Emin, Georgia O’Keeffe, and more

By Moya Marshall

After hearing about the tragic theft of Van Gogh’s Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in Spring from the Singer Laren Museum on the artist’s 167th birthday last month, I was led down a google-hole of the most infamous art heists and forgeries that took place over the last century or so. Interestingly (or predictably) I found that the majority of these heists were focused on work created by male artists. This comes down to the simple fact that their works are financially valued much higher in the art world.

I’d like to emphasise that this is not a call to arms to thieves who wish to bound into exhibitions hosting women’s art, pluck paintings off the walls, and flog them on the black market with a newfound moral high-ground. Nevertheless it is still remarkable that male figures will always be at the forefront of our consciousness in art-related discussion.

To counter this imbalance, I uncovered a selection of art’s most famous women artists, whose work has been victim to either theft or mysterious disappearances.

Tamara de Lempicka’s La Musicienne and Myrto

Painter Tamara de Lempicka began her life as a member of the Polish-Russian elite, before making her name as an artist in 1920s Paris. Fusing influence from the ‘Old Masters’ and the Cubists, her work is now known to epitomise the then emerging Art Deco movement.

In 2009, armed robbers stormed the Scheringa Museum for Realist Art in Holland and took de Lempicka’s La Musicienne (along with a painting by Salvador Dali) from the wall – you might recognise the painting from its feature in the first few seconds of Madonna’s iconic Vogue music video. Thankfully, Dutch art detective Arthur Brand spent nine months carefully negotiating with two separate criminal gangs and secured the return of both La Musicienne and Dali’s work in 2016.

However, this is not the most mysterious burglary of de Lempicka’s work. In 1929 de Lempicka painted Myrto, an image of two naked women reclining, which was immediately acquired by prominent French physician Dr Pierre Boucard. When the Nazi’s occupied France, the painting was spied by a German soldier who plucked it from the wall. It has not been seen since.

Frida Kahlo’s La Mesa Herida

A Mexican surrealist who needs little introduction, Frida Kahlo’s iconic presence dominates 20th and 21st century art and feminism. Equally renowned for her turbulent life which sported a marriage filled with affairs, a horrendous bus accident, and an untimely death at age 47, her art lives on as a testament to her troubles and unique vision.

In 1940 Kahlo produced La Mesa Herida (translating as ‘The Wounded Table’) – a warped depiction of the Last Supper featuring the artist herself, skeletons, and her husband Diego Rivera. As Kahlo’s largest piece, which was produced as oil on wood instead of canvas, it was last exhibited in Warsaw in 1955 where it was lost on its way back to Moscow. Kahlo – a dedicated communist – had donated the piece to the Soviet Union as a gift. Although subject to ongoing investigation, the whereabouts of the painting is still anyone’s guess.

Tracey Emin’s Roman Standard and embroidered handkerchief

British artist Tracey Emin is known for her multimedia, confessional works which have taken the form of sculpture, installations, and paintings. Her infamous pieces Everyone I Have Ever Slept With and My Bed, contributed to feminist discussion in the 1990s and as a member of the Young British Artists (YBA) movement which emerged in London during the late 1980s, Emin’s provocative work has brought her to the celebrated forefront of contemporary art.

Emin unveiled her sculpture Roman Standard on the grounds of Liverpool Cathedral in 2005. Atop of a bronze four-metre pole sits a little bird, 4-inches high, representative of Liverpool’s mythical symbol of the Liver Bird. Although the bird was stolen twice in 2008, it was first returned to the grounds with a handwritten note apologising to Emin and on the second occasion, it was handed into the police.

Another particularly hard-hitting theft of Emin’s work is that of an embroidered handkerchief which was anonymously donated to an Oxfam charity shop in London. Dated to 1999, embroidered with her signature and the phrase “‘Be Faithful To Your Dreams”’, the shop displayed the handkerchief during the Christmas season of 2012, thinking it would make a nice gift for an art-lover. Unfortunately it was taken from the display and never returned. In reparation, Emin donated a signed poster of one of her designs for the Olympics in London 2012 to the shop.

Mary Cassatt’s Modern Woman mural

Pennsylvanian born artist Mary Cassatt met many obstacles in her artistic career: her father’s lack of support, a fire which destroyed works she had hoped to sell in order to buy art supplies, and the tragic loss of her sight which left her unable to absorb herself in the activity she loved the most. Cassatt was an impressionist, although instead of being drawn to landscapes like many of her (mostly male) counterparts, she was drawn to painting the figures of women in everyday, domestic settings.

In 1893, Cassatt was commissioned to produce a mural depicting the advancement of womanhood through history for the Columbian Exposition and Fair, held in Chicago. The Modern Woman mural was supposed to stand over the entrance of the Gallery of Honour in the Women’s Building and Cassatt had produced a triptych, measuring 58 x 12 feet – a gigantic effort.

Although this work was met with disdain from critics, with her use of vivid colours being classed as an “assault” on the eye, Cassatt’s feminist themes have led to high praise in modern times. Shortly after the convention, the mural vanished. Due to its colossal size making it difficult to hide, and considering its negative reception, speculation that it has been destroyed is not unbelievable.

Georgia O’Keeffe’s Cliffs, Seaweed, and Fragment of Rancho de Taos Church

Leading American modernist Georgia O’Keeffe led an eventful, yet turbulent life. Despite being a celebrated artist who set records for auctioning her work for the highest prices ever paid for a woman artist, she too suffered the infidelity of a celebrated husband, nervous breakdowns, and constant misinterpretation of her work.

In 1946, three small paintings of O’Keeffe’s were stolen from An American Place gallery, which was owned by her husband Alfred Stieglitz. The stolen works were Cliffs, Seaweed, and Fragment of Rancho de Taos Church, and for reasons unknown, O’Keeffe didn’t embark on a legal battle to get them back until over 30 years later.

In 1978, during a case which held great implications for artists and art collectors worldwide, she sued gallery-owner Barry Snyder who had legally bought the paintings two years before. She lost the case, on the grounds that her claim was outside the Statute of Limitations (a law that sets the maximum time a person has to initiate legal proceedings from the date of an offence) and that she had never formally reported the theft back when it was stolen. Despite this, upon appeal two years later, the paintings were finally returned to her possession.

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