- The Washington Times - Friday, August 1, 2003

Many priceless works of art have disappeared throughout history. Some are known to have been destroyed in accidents, disasters, wars, revolutions and — in the recent case of 300 Rodin sculptures lost in Cantor Fitzgerald’s offices at the World Trade Center — terrorist attacks. Others simply vanished without a trace under unusual, sometimes even bizarre, circumstances. One suspects that few, if any, of these treasures will ever be seen again.

Although German art collector and publisher Gert-Rudolf “Muck” Flick admits the trail runs pretty cold for the 24 works he selected for inclusion in his impressive coffee-table book, “Missing Masterpieces: Lost Works of Art, 1450-1900” (Merrell Publishers), he insists there is still hope for their eventual recovery.

Just because no one has seen a particular item for two or three centuries doesn’t mean it has irretrievably “perished,” he writes in his book’s introduction. The proverbial situation of an “unnoticed picture hanging on a landing in a country house” suddenly being “identified as an important Old Master … is increasingly rare, but is by no means extinct.”

Only recently, he notes, a Cimabue was discovered under just such circumstances. The exceedingly rare painting (now in London’s National Gallery) was the first of the artist’s works ever sold at auction.

Mr. Flick concentrates on works by Holbein, Titian, Jacques-Louis David, Michelangelo, Poussin, Caravaggio and Rubens (among others) that were highly esteemed in their own time. Most were commissioned by popes, kings or other wealthy patrons and were subsequently lost because of theft or accidental mis-attribution following key intervals of civil strife.

The author’s highly selective concentration on a 450-year time frame ending with the year 1900 allows him to focus on important losses during the English Civil War and French Revolution but has been criticized for stopping well short of World War II, the most important period in history in terms of missing works of art.

Mr. Flick, 59, has a plausible explanation for stopping the detective work on “Missing Masterpieces” when he did but seems resigned to the controversy that inevitably follows him as a grandson of German industrialist Friedrich Flick, founder of the Mercedes-Benz automobile company, who stood trial at Nuremburg for expropriating Jewish assets and using forced labor in his steel plants during the war. After serving three years in prison, he was released on a grant of clemency in 1950 and rebuilt his empire. He died in 1972, leaving a fortune estimated at $1 billion.

Gert-Rudolf Flick, one of several eventual heirs to his grandfather’s fortune, was born in France, studied law at the University of Munich and was a partner in the family’s firm before selling off his interests between 1975 and 1985. A London-based collector of 18th-century Italian paintings and English silver, he was formerly the publisher of the Apollo art magazine. “Missing Masterpieces” is his first book.

Q. What got you interested in missing masterpieces?

A. I was looking for a subject and discovered that a friend, Peter Watson, had a project to make a compendium of all missing works of art of any relevance: a very large book with just the names of the works and perhaps two or three lines about each. We started doing this, but after three or four weeks, we realized it was turning into a bookkeeping exercise and wouldn’t be very interesting. We knew we had to do something else. My friend decided to do a book on the history of ideas, “A Terrible Beauty.” I stayed with the subject and transformed it from thousands of items [to] just 24, which would be analyzed in detail.

Q. There are more than 130,000 missing works on the Art Register. How did you come up with your 24? It must have been a huge process of elimination.

A. I had certain criteria. They had to come from an important artist and be important works, if not masterpieces. The third absolute requirement was to have a visual representation in the form of a drawing or engraving or a copy. Also, they had to have gone through a sequence of collections, ideally of important owners. If the work was made for just one person and lost immediately afterward, it wouldn’t have made a very interesting story.

Q. Obviously you were looking for dramatic aspect: wars, revolutions, owners’ poisonings, etc. Which works were most compelling?

A. The most important one is probably Michelangelo’s bronze sculpture of “David,” which was so famous in its day that it was celebrated in an address at the artist’s funeral even though it had been created some 60 years before. It disappeared during the French Revolution. The owner, the Duc de Villeroy, was executed, his goods confiscated, and then all record was lost. Two secretaries of the French Revolutionary Council wrote in their inventory report that it should adorn some public place, so from that I assume it was not meant to be destroyed.

Q. Wars and political upheavals seem to be the main reasons major works of art are lost.

A. Masterpieces are lost or stolen all the time — and found all of the time — but there are certain periods in history when such activity is on a completely different level because of internal unrest: war, invasions, etc. This was especially true during the English Civil War when Charles I’s huge collection was dispersed on the orders of the House of Commons. Over 3,000 paintings hit the market within five years, including Titian’s famous “Portrait of Isabella d’Este in Red.” The Duke of Hamilton was executed in 1649, and his 2,000 paintings were also sold. After the Duke of Buckingham was assassinated … and the Earl of Arundel was forced into exile, the same thing happened to their enormous collections. So, in the first half of the 17th century, four major collections were sold. That has never happened again as far as such quality is concerned. King Charles’ collection, you see, was really the Gonzaga Collection, which had been assembled over centuries. Charles I was able to buy it en bloc in 1628.

Q. You write that people have the idea that works of art aren’t terribly durable, but in fact, they usually survive longer than the buildings that house them.

A. Canvas is more durable than one imagines. Water doesn’t really affect it that much. Paintings can be moved and survive; buildings come down.

Q. While you were writing, several of the missing masterpieces you were planning to include in the book actually turned up.

A. Joseph Wright of Derby’s “The Siege of Gibraltar” was found in the Milwaukee Art Museum. It had been miscataloged as a work by [John Robert] Cozens.

Q. So, hope remains that these works may eventually be found?

A. Mis-attribution is the most common form of being lost. Something definitely exists, but we don’t really know where. It will definitely have a wrong label. Caravaggio’s famous “The Betrayal of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane,” for example, ended up in a Jesuit monastery, where it was thought to be the work of [Gerrit van] Honthorst, a follower of Caravaggio’s. A hundred years later, in 1992, an Italian art historian named Benedetti saw it and thought it was too good to be by Honthorst. He checked it out, and he was right. It was the missing Caravaggio.

Q. What can be done to retrieve something like the Benvenuto Cellini salt cellars, which were stolen recently from the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna?

A. First of all, most things that are held in museums are not insured, so thieves cannot hope an insurance company will ransom them. They can only ask the museum to pay for their return, but museums don’t have that much money. I understand the Austrian government has offered 70,000 euros ($78,712) for information that could lead to the discovery of the Cellini work, which is unique and valued at maybe 50 million euros ($56.2 million). A worthwhile exercise would be for a number of contributors to raise a million euros — say, ten people giving 100,000 euros ($112.45 million) each. That’s a lot of money, and one could be reasonably optimistic that some information might be forthcoming.

Q. You’ve been criticized for not including works that went missing in the 20th century, especially those that disappeared during World War II at the hands of the Germans. It looked to some as if you wanted to avoid that era.

A. It could have been done. I don’t deny that important works of art were stolen in this period. I’m not a Nazi. … But there are so many scholars and government agencies — maybe hundreds of them — working to retrieve works of art appropriated during that period that I wasn’t sure I could have made a specific contribution. Originally, I wanted to include one or two from that time, especially the Czartoryski family’s “Portrait of a Young Man” by Raphael, one of six works confiscated by the notorious [Reichskommisar] Hans Frank in January 1945, when Poland fell into Russian hands. It was the only one not recovered from his mountain retreat in Bavaria. There was a joint-venture investigation in the ‘50s by the Czartoryski family and the art dealer Wildenstein, but I couldn’t get access to the files.

Q. Why not examine the World War II era in a sequel?

A. I’ve thought about it. I have enough material to write a second volume — and I could probably include 20th-century works.

Q. Critics imply you didn’t want to touch upon the era because of your grandfather’s experience during the war.

A. It’s not primarily that it has something to do with my family, but I am obviously aware that if I make a mistake and say that something was stolen or missing and it wasn’t, then it would be a bit more problematic for me because of my name than for somebody else.

Q. Your brother [Friedrich Christian “Mick” Flick] had major problems when he tried to establish a museum to house his collection of contemporary art.

A. That was only in Zurich. Now, the Senate of Berlin has given him a building, an old railroad depot, where he can exhibit his collection as of April of next year.

Q. You had a similar problem in 1996 when Oxford University dons opposed your endowment of a Flick Chair of European Thought at Balliol College because of the source of your family’s wealth.

A. Actually, the dons would have taken it [smiles]. I was going to give them quite a lot of money. … The student parliament together with some journalists were the ones who objected to the link between my family and the Third Reich. They just didn’t want [the chair]. But I got my money back, and they found somebody else to sponsor it.

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