Lost, Stolen or Shredded by Rick Gekoski: book review

In Lost, Stolen or Shredded, Rick Gekoski draws upon his expertise in antiquarian book dealing, academia and his proclivity for collecting to explore the hows and whys of missing art and literature. What unfolds is a collage of history, memoir, commentary and some truly fascinating stories – well known and obscure – of art heists, cultural vandalism, protected reputations and greed.

Each chapter covers a story or theme and Gekoski’s reflections on it. He tells, for instance, of Vincenzo Peruggia, an unprepossessing Italian picture framer working at the Louvre in 1911 who took the Mona Lisa off the wall, stuffed her up his smock, walked out with her unchallenged and kept her in his bedroom for two years. What’s intriguing, as Gekoski explains, is the public reaction to the theft. When the gallery opened a week later, thousands queued to look at the space the Mona Lisa left behind in an extraordinary convergence of crime scene curiosity and ritual mourning.

Another object, one never recovered, is a gaudy sounding edition of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (a twelfth century Persian poet translated by Edward Fitzgerald) bound by Francis Sangorski with a peacock design in gold leaf and over 1,000 precious stones. It was commissioned in 1909, took two years to make, then sank with the Titanic in 1912. A further lesson, as if the Edwardians needed one, on the fallacy of decadence.

Some of the moments recounted by Gekoski are most poignant because they are deeply human. A striking example is the library of Guido Adler, a pioneer of modern musicology, whose collection included a personally inscribed manuscript of Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen (‘I am Lost to the World’) by Mahler. Adler, a Jew, died of natural causes in Vienna in 1941. His daughter, Melanie, inherited his library and unquestionably aware of its importance tried using it as bargaining chip with the Nazis in exchange for her life. An act of desperation assuredly and, with hindsight, naivety. Needless to say they procured the keys to her father’s library and its contents, and murdered her anyway.

Far less harrowing though no less interesting is a personal anecdote of Gekoski’s meeting with the Irish writer, Brian Coffey, in the 1980s regarding placing his papers with various institutions. In the 1920s Coffey was personal friend, golfing buddy and correspondent of Samuel Beckett. ‘How many letters would you say you had from Sam?’ Gekoski asked, book dealer antennae twitching. Coffey replied that he never counted but it was probably ‘thousands’ and that he threw them all away. Gekoski (presumably reeling from shock) asked him why?

‘At first, I just answered a letter, then chucked it in the bin. As you do. But after a few years, and Sam got well known, then I made sure to throw them away . . . because they were private.’

And this is the core of what Gekoski’s book is about, how we relate to works of cultural significance. Depending on our point of view art is personal property; a sellable commodity; of immeasurably greater historic than intrinsic value; damaging to individual reputations; a political firework waiting to go off; or rubbish getting in the way. Equally the loss and destruction of art and literature provokes different responses, emotional and real world.

As wide-ranging as this book is, there’s much material left for Gekoski to cover. Only as I was reading it (July 2013) a news report emerged of a mother in Romania who apparently burned paintings by Picasso, Monet, Matisse and Freud in her oven. The woman claims it was an attempt to ‘destroy the evidence’ following her son’s arrest for an art theft from Rotterdam’s Kunsthal Museum in October 2012. The work had a collective value of between 100m and 200m euros. This kind of story confirms what Gekoski explains: art thefts are not jaunty Thomas Crown style escapades by eccentric billionaire collectors, they are ham-fisted and motivated by money. And the more famous and highly valued a work, the more difficult it becomes to move it along the chain of dealers. Priceless paintings become virtually, even literally, worthless.

Paradoxically the looting of the National Museum in Baghdad during the Bush/Rumsfeld/Blair war in Iraq, the loss of thousands of ancient Mesopotamian pieces and the subsequent saturation of the antiquities marketplace in the West meant prices tumbled. Gekoski meditates on whether the appropriation of one culture’s treasures by another has any benefits? His juxtaposition of the case of the Elgin Marbles makes interesting reading. Still it’s a chilling thought that in the modern age, rather than taking an enlightened approach to artefacts, devastation is potentially systematic and the channels to sell merchandise superefficient.

Lost, Stolen or Shredded is based on the Radio 4 documentary of the same name. I didn’t hear it myself, but if Gekoski’s voice on the air is the same as it is on the page, then he’s witty, knowledgeable and engaging – someone I’d definitely want to be seated next to at a dinner party. Despite the big themes this is a hugely readable book about an intriguing subject.

In his afterword Gekoski reminds us with Buddhist-like reflection that even when it survives accident, political turmoil and bungling, art doesn’t last forever. Art is fragile and temporary. Its very impermanence is what we should cherish.

Lost, Stolen or Shredded by Rick Gekoski

Published in the UK by Profile Books, April 2013

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