I'm not sure there ever was a time when the illusion totally matched the reality of the situation, but traditionally, we've always thought of museums as being secure safe- havens for historic artifacts and great works of art. Once an object or famous work of art reaches the hallowed halls of some great metropolitan or national museum we like to consider it safe for all time. There it can be guarded, glorified, studied, viewed, archived, stored, and enjoyed for the endless ages to come. I guess for the most part, this image is true, but like all human institutions, there are often some pretty embarrassing holes in in it as well.
It took Austria's National Gallery of Art seventeen years to finally admit they seem to have misplaced some fifty-two watercolors and drawings worth millions of dollars, including fourteen pieces by the German Expressionist, Egon Schiele. The work was part of a collection bequeathed to the museum by Paul Poiret in 1912. He'd been a famous Paris fashion designer. They managed to hold onto them until 1983 at which time they replaced the missing work with a long series of lame excuses starting with "we loaned them to another museum but we just can't remember which one," and leading up to "maybe on second thought we never had them in the first place." Eventually, they gave up making excuses and called in the police. After seventeen years, it should be a really "fun" investigation.
Sometimes it's simply not the museum's fault. They take all the proscribed security precautions--cameras, alarms, locks, guards, and still they lose work. That's what happened New Year's Eve at the Ashmolean Museum on the campus of Oxford University in England. Using the nearby, noisy millennial celebrations as a cover distraction, a lone thief climbed to the roof, broke through a skylight, then lowered himself into a gallery containing Paul Cezanne's "Auvers-sur-Oise," and made off with the $5-million painting. Either his tastes ran exclusively toward Postimpressionism or he was hired by a collector with such tastes, because he left behind works by Leonardo and Picasso worth much more. In any case, it certainly was a professional job. Police report he used smoke bombs to hide himself from cameras; and was in and out in less than ten minutes, probably melting into the celebrating crowd before the alarm system could summoned guards. It sounds like something out of a recent movie (The Thomas Crown Affair").
And then, sometimes, museums lose work due to history. That's the case with Henri Matisse's "Odalesque," painted in 1921. The Seattle Art Museum was recently obliged to hand it over to the heirs of French art dealer, Paul Rosenberg, a Jewish victim of the Holocaust. Earlier, Rosenberg had also been the victim of several state-authorized thefts of his wares by the German army during WW II. The Seattle museum had acquired the Matisse as a bequest from a local family who had purchased it from a New York Gallery which had apparently acquired and sold it not knowing of it's tainted past.
The Seattle museum is not taking it lying down, however. They have attempted to sue the Knoedler Gallery from whom the painting was purchased only to have their case thrown out on the grounds the museum was not the one defrauded, but the Bloedel Family, which had donated it to the museum. Nonetheless, the museum continues to pursue the case on appeal. And they aren't the only ones to lose work once belonging to the Rosenbergs. The Pompidou Centre in Paris recently had to fork over Fernand Leger's 1914 "Woman in Red and Green" under similar circumstances. Hmmm...I think I'll forego the museum route and hold onto all my work myself for safe keeping.