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France Lost Track of 23,000 State-Owned Artworks and Historic Objects

The French Ministry of Culture (photo via Wikipedia)
The French Ministry of Culture (photo by Simdaperce/Wikipedia)

Nearly 23,000 works of state-owned art are missing in France and its overseas territories, lost over time from museums, town halls, and major institutions largely due to poor documentation and even theft. The number arrives from French daily Libération, which recently looked into the Sherlock database launched in 2014 by the Commission de Récolement des Ouvres d’Art de l’Etat (CRDOA), a government commission charged with cataloguing the inventories of national cultural centers.

Many versions of this painting, originally by Franz Xaver Winterhalter, are unaccounted for in (photo via Wikipedia)
Many versions of this painting, originally by Franz Xaver Winterhalter, are unaccounted for (photo via Wikipedia)

The impetus for Libération‘s digging was CRDOA’s annual report of 2015, published last May, which denounced the poor monitoring of the country’s cultural heritage. Over the last two centuries, CRDOA notes that the French state has amassed a collection of over 430,000 objects, last tallied in 2011. Responsibility for managing these is dispersed among administrative bodies such as the Fonds National d’Art Contemporain, Mobilier National, and the Service des Musées de France — which presides over national museums, including the Louvre and the Musée d’Orsay. Service des Musées de France, according to Libération‘s numbers, comes in second for the most artworks missing, with nearly 6,500 pieces unaccounted for, 65% of which are archaeological objects. It follows the Centre National des Arts Plastiques, which is currently searching for over 11,000 objects, 54% of which are paintings, and which represent nearly one-ninth of its inventory.

Missing objects span from ornate clocks to royal portraits to an entire mahogany bed that should be in the Palace of Versailles. A number of drawings, paintings, prints, and sculptures by Picasso have also vanished from various museums around the country; a tapestry by Joan Miró loaned to the French embassy in Washington, DC, is no longer there. Many French embassies are actually filled with less state art than they are supposed to hold: Libération found that while most complaints filed for missing works come from Paris — 501 — a total of 123 were filed for works registered in French embassies, all the responsibility of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The embassy in Conakry, Guinea, has no idea what has happened to five tapestries placed in its care.

The departments in charge of the missing objects are actively attempting to track and recover them. In 2014, CRDOA’s president, Jacques Sallois, called for them to submit reports on the conditions of their inventories, noting that such poor cataloguing and documentation dates back to the era of Napoleon III. Since the launch of Sherlock, 251 objects have been found, according to Libération.

One success story CRDOA recounts in its 2015 report, which illustrates just how much of an adventure an object might have, is the 13-year quest to recover a Louis XVI desk. Its holder, Mobilier National, had verified a number of times that it was in its rightful spot at the Ministry of National Education. In 2002, however, an antique dealer who had acquired the desk notified Mobilier National after noticing the inventory number marked on it. While the government body filed a complaint, a Paris Court dismissed the case, ruling that there was not enough evidence to establish a theft had been intentionally committed. The desk resurfaced at two auctions in 2013. A case to attain it after the first was also dismissed, but in 2015, after a legal battle, a French high court ruled that it be returned to the state.

In its report, CRDOA noted that the recovery of all objects is not foreseeable before 2020, but that with new and tighter measures regarding documentation and applications for loans, public institutions should now be properly and effectively monitoring their cultural reserves.

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