The best art that you'll never see


Art usually outlives the generation that created it. But it can also disappear, whether through theft, destruction or transformation. In these extracts from a new book, CÉLINE DELAVAUXtells the turbulent stories of five notable pieces




When Paul Cézanne recognised himself as the character of the wretched painter in a novel by his friend Émile Zola he was so hurt that broke off contact with the writer. If the artist had hoped for more success in his lifetime, he could not have imagined that, a century later, his paintings would fetch such prices that they provoked robberies and hold-ups.

The acerbic jeers that greeted works by the Impressionists and, later, the cubists seem hollow in light of the astronomical prices the paintings by these avant-garde artists command today. An example of art at the crossroads between these two movements, Cézanne’s Boy in a Red Waistcoat was stolen in 2008 in a manner worthy of an action movie and, until very recently, remained one of Interpol’s most-wanted works of art.

One Sunday in February 2008, towards the end of the afternoon, three unusual visitors entered the Foundation EG Bührle in Zurich, a Swiss museum famous for its collection of Impressionist paintings.

Three minutes later, hooded and armed, the criminals left the scene weighed down with a Monet, a Degas, a Van Gogh and a Cézanne, all simply snatched from the walls. This precious loot was extremely bulky, to the extent that some witnesses saw the paintings sticking out of the trunk of the getaway car.

With an estimated value of more than €100 million, these works were much too famous to go on the market. As if to prove this, the Van Gogh and the Monet resurfaced a few weeks after the theft, dumped in the car park of a Zurich psychiatric clinic.

As for Boy in a Red Waistcoat, it was found in Belgrade in April this year, thanks to the efforts of a buyer who was prepared to pay the thieves €3 million, and it was returned to the Foundation EG Bührle.

The work’s homage to colour recalls the ideas of the Impressionists: subjective perception and feeling outweigh an academic representation dependent on the logic of perspective and a respect for proportions.

Moreover, one can already see, in the treatment of shapes, the method invented by Cézanne himself: “Treat nature in terms of the cylinder, the sphere, and the cone.” This rule would be recalled by Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso when they invented cubism.




Works of art can, of course, pursue a destiny quite separate from that of their owners. But when a sculpture survives an extraordinarily murderous attack it acquires a symbolic force beyond measure.

After the attacks of September 11th, 2001, in New York, the Sphere, a monumental sculpture by the German artist Fritz Koenig that stood in the middle of a plaza at the World Trade Center, was damaged but survived beneath the rubble. This resistance deemed it worthy of conservation, and it was relocated as a memorial to the victims of 9/11 in a park in lower Manhattan.

Fritz Koenig worked on his Great Spherical Caryatid, his response to a commission from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, from 1967 to 1971. Overlooking a fountain on Austin J Tobin Plaza, the sculpture was quickly adopted by New Yorkers, who nicknamed it the Sphere. The piece rotated every 24 hours, symbolising peace on the planet beyond international commercial trading.

Koenig had seen the meaning of his work in relation to the installation site, one of the most sensitive locations for world trade and therefore stability, which became the target of atrocious carnage 30 years later. The sculpture, made from 20 tons of bronze and steel, was found beneath the rubble. Its survival – it still bears the scars of the attack – has invested it with a new symbolic responsibility: relocated to Battery Park, today it stands as a temporary memorial to the victims of the September 11th attacks.

In 1983 Koenig created the monument for the Federal Republic of Germany in the former concentration camp at Mauthausen, in Austria, and, in 1995 he created a homage to the victims of the Munich massacre during the 1972 Olympic Games. In retrospect, these works by Koenig make the strange destiny of the Sphere even more poignant and disturbing. His original homage to peace was transformed, beyond any artistic intention or intervention, into a memorial. The work thus acquired a second life, invested with the same symbolism of peace, but in another form, independent of the artist, and fashioned by a cynical gesture of terrorist violence.




The power of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s work derives from the contrast between spectacular, monumental forms and an ephemeral lifespan. Some viewers had the opportunity to admire the works in situ, during the time they were exhibited. Others have to make do with photographs and Christo’s superb preparatory sketches.

In May 1983, 11 islands in Biscayne Bay near Miami underwent an extraordinary transformation. Wrapped in fuchsia pink, which chimed well with their own green, the islands seemed to parade around the turquoise waters of the Atlantic like ballet dancers. Like all their projects, Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s Surrounded Islands took many years of preparatory work: three years of preparation for just two weeks of existence.

Since the 1950s Christo and Jeanne-Claude have been wrapping the world in fabric: in 1968 they wrapped the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, in 1970 a stretch of the Australian coastline, the Pont-Neuf in Paris in 1985, and the Reichstag in Berlin in 1995, among many other sites.

Like any “traditional” artist, Christo begins by making sketches in his studio. He pins his drawings on boards embellished with notes, topographical maps and samples of the fabric that will wrap the chosen monument or site. These preparations are works of art in themselves that, when sold at auction, reach astronomical prices and so contribute to the financing of the final work.

In April 1981 the artists hired lawyers, engineers,

a contractor, a specialist in marine biology, ornithologists and a zoologist. They rented a factory for months in order to assemble the 600,000sq m of floating pink fabric needed to match the contours of the islands. On May 4th, 1983, hundreds of technicians lashed the polypropylene fabric to the islands, and on May 7th the work of art finally looked as the artists had imagined it.




Some works of art spend their lives hidden away in private collections. If they change hands they might appear for a few moments on the occasion of auctions. Then, more often than not, they just disappear again.

Alberto Giacometti’s Walking Man I is a major work of 20th-century art. One of the bronze editions has been travelling the planet since it was created, in 1960, dependent on the goodwill of its various owners.

In 1959 Alberto Giacometti received a commission from Chase Manhattan Bank. This was not enough to make him abandon the ceaseless searching that characterised his career. In his tiny Paris studio he worked on more than 40 versions of his Walking Man. In this piece he succeeded in representing not a man but his essence, his truth. This highly emotional silhouette brought into focus ideas about existence, reality and absurdity that Jean Genet, Jean-Paul Sartre and Samuel Beckett were exploring in their writing during the same period. It is because it attains this universal, philosophical dimension that Giacometti’s sculpture is a masterpiece.

The New York bank that finally cancelled the commission must have bitterly regretted its impatience. In 1961 the art dealer André Maeght was clever enough to buy an edition of Walking Man I, and Giacometti also gave him an artist’s proof in plaster for the price of the cast; you can still see this unique work at the Fondation Maeght, in the French town of Saint-Paul-de-Vence.

Maeght sold the bronze edition to Sydney Janis, an American colleague. In 1962 Janis traded the work with the print dealer Isidore Cohen, who then sold it to a Chicago doctor named Milton Ratner. This collector kept it until 1980, when financial difficulties forced him to part with it. Then Janis bought it back, doubtless through a deal quite different from the one he had negotiated in 1962. Some months later Walking Man I left the US for Germany; it spent the next 30 years in the meeting room of Dresdner Bank, until the latter was bought by Commerzbank, in 2008. Two years later Giacometti’s emblematic sculpture came up for sale at Sotheby’s in London. Eight minutes on the telephone and Walking Man I disappeared once again, this time destined for the private collection of a London-based billionaire.



Wars do not just destroy human life; they can also try to eradicate the values that underpin human cultures. Thus works of art can be considered enemies, and statues blown up. Two large statues of the Buddha had dominated the Bamiyan Valley for almost 1,500 years when they were attacked by the Taliban in March 2001. These stone giants, which had survived the Mongols and the pillaging and wars that have ravaged Afghanistan, had become too much of a provocation for the ruling regime.

Located on the Silk Road, which links China and India to the West, Bamiyan was one of the most important centres of Buddhism in Afghanistan. Since the second century AD the cells cut into the cliff face the length of the valley have housed about 1,000 monks. These grotto sanctuaries also contained pre-Islamic treasures of Buddhist art, such as the two giant Buddhas that were cut into the rock of the mountainside.

Stylistically, the sculptures were examples of the meeting between Buddhist art and influences from the Greece of Alexander the Great. The smaller Buddha, 38m tall, had wavy hair in the Greek style and a monk’s pleated robes; the larger Buddha, also wearing red, blue and gold, had flames coming out of his stucco-coated shoulders, and stood 55m high.

The face of the larger Buddha was probably destroyed when Islam first arrived in the region, in the ninth century, as traditional Islam forbids the depiction of the human face. In the 13th century Genghis Khan put an end to Bamiyan’s prosperity by destroying the town. The first archeological digs started around 1920; pillagers were alerted by the richness of the site, which later continued to be damaged by more than 20 years of war.

Then came the end: on February 26th, 2001, the Taliban leader Mullah Omar decreed the destruction of all Buddhist statuary, as he considered it to be anti-Islamic. After several weeks of bombing, and despite international pressure to prevent their demolition, the two Buddhas were no more. In 2003 Unesco added Bamiyan to the list of endangered world-heritage sites.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection


Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.