You don’t get news like this very often: The Dallas Museum of Art is giving back a looted mosaic that it has held for the last 13 years. The mosaic, showing the mythic poet Orpheus taming wild animals by playing his lyre, was stolen in the ‘50s from the floor of an A.D. 104 Roman building near Edessa, now modern Turkey.
Maxwell Anderson, Dallas Museum’s new director, uncovered the theft from a Turkish website that pictures stolen objects. He also discovered other objects in the museum collection said to be gotten from a dealer now under investigation in Italy for dealing in stolen antiquities.
Of course, art plunder is committed by many people, in many places, in many times. And while it frequently ends up in museums, not all of it is returned. An exception is the heist of the Mona Lisa, which was taken from the Louvre in 1911 and returned in 1913 – by the thief himself.
Still, art robberies persist. Consider these paintings swiped in the current century:
This year, a Barbara Hepworth sculpture was stolen http://rootshed.com/article/stealing-from-art-history from London’s Dulwich Park.
Two years ago: paintings by Picasso and Matisse were stolen from Paris Museum of Modern Art.
Four years ago: paintings by Cezanne, Degas, van Gogh and Monet were stolen from a private museum in Zurich.
Five years ago: a painting by Pablo Picasso was stolen from the Sao Paulo Museum of Art in Brazil,
Six years ago, paintings by Matisse, Picasso, Monet and Salvador Dali were stolen from the Museu Chacara do Ceu, Rio de Janeiro.
8 years ago, two paintings by Edvard Munch were stolen from the Munch Museum in Oslo,
10 years ago, two Van Gogh paintings taken from Vincent Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam
12 years ago, a self-portrait by Rembrandt and two Renoir paintings from Stockholm’s National Museum
But as if by some weird reciprocity, stolen art also has a way of ending up in museums, including state treasure houses the world over. Our own National Gallery of Art keeps work that the Nazis robbed from French Jews.
In World War II, the Red Army Trophy Brigade enriched Russia’s State Hermitage Museum with art treasures belonging to private German collectors. The stolen art included impressionist works by Degas, Van Gogh, Cezanne, Monet and Renoir.
Then there was Hapsburg Emperor Charles V, who sacked Rome in 1527 and stashed the loot in the Austrian national museum. Gustavus Adolphus, and later his daughter, Queen Christina, built the Swedish national collection with art pinched during the religious wars.
Perhaps the most famous example of stolen art held by a museum is the Louvre. Napoleon’s trampling armies walked off with art from seemingly everywhere: Egypt, Greece, Italy, Spain, Germany, Austria, and the Netherlands.
Art seems to change hands almost as often as political power does. It’s been said that if every museum were to return art treasures to their original owners, the walls of treasure houses worldwide would empty.
All the more reason to give a shout-out to the Dallas Museum.