500 Major Artworks Bought with German State Funds Are Reported Missing—Who Stole Them?

A Picasso yellowed next to a copy machine, the report reveals.

No one noticed that a lithograph by Joan Miró, Signes et meteores has gone missing.
No one noticed that a lithograph by Joan Miró, Signes et meteores has gone missing.

Baden-Württemberg, Germany’s third largest federal state, has been put to shame after a recent analysis carried out by the state’s court of audit revealed shocking negligence related to artworks procured with state funds.

According to German daily Frankfurter Allgemeinethe audit showed that some 500 public artworks produced as part of the 1950s municipal program “Kunst am Bau” (the German equivalent of New York’s Percent for Art law) are unaccounted for, or missing. Since 2010, the state has purchased artworks for €2 million ($2.2 million).

The government body Vermögen und Bau Baden-Württemberg is responsible for the management of 3,500 works of public art across the state, which have been catalogued. Since 2005, all artworks and added acquisitions were recorded in a digital database. However, a recent audit of the database showed that 500 works can no longer be located. 

Lionel Feininger <i>Segelschiffe</i> 1919

Lyonel Feininger Segelschiffe (1919)

Among the missing works are important modernist pieces such as the 1958 lithograph Signes et météores (from an edition of 100) by Joan Miró, and a 1919 woodcut by Lyonel Feininger titled Segelschiffe. 

Both artworks were procured in the early 1960s for the University of Stuttgart. According to research by the court of audit, the university administration was not aware of the loss, or even the date when the theft was first noticed. 

The court of audit also criticized the poor management and storage practices in the area. In the city of Fellbach, for instance, Pablo Picasso’s 1957 lithograph, Tête de femme, collected dust in a hallway next to a copy machine, and the work showed signs of yellowing. 

Other examples of negligence were noted. The sculpture Le Poète et sa Muse (1976-78) by Niki de Saint Phalle, for instance, was installed by a pond on the grounds of the Ulm University, and must now be recast.

Niki de Saint Phalle <I>La poète et sa muse</i> (1976-78) is in bad need of repair. <br>Photo: University of Ulm

Niki de Saint Phalle La poète et sa muse (1976-78) is in bad need of repair.
Photo: University of Ulm.

In addition to negligent management of artworks, the administrative body also failed to record the increase in value of the works in the state’s possession. The regional paper Rhein-Necker-Zeitung estimates that the value of the collection bought with state funds has grown exponentially: a painting by Ernst Wilhelm Nay titled Freiburger Bild (1956), purchased for 15,000 deutsche marks (about €7,600) could fetch up to €2 million ($2.2 million) today. 

But also works purchased for higher prices at the time, by artists such as Henry Moore, Otto Dix, Alexander Calder, Aristide Maillol, Max Ackermann, Picasso, and de Saint Phalle have assumed significant gains over the years.

Related news:

885 artworks missing from Madrid’s Prado Museum

Oscar Murillo painting missing from New York’s MoMA

Rembrant and Dürer stolen from Boston Library


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