A work of art that’s been stolen attains a tantalizing aura of mystery, a legendary status that grows with each hour of absence. A destroyed or a lost work of art can sometimes attain that level of mythos, as long as we are aware of its significance before it’s disappeared. But most art, in fact, most of the art that has ever been made throughout history, is simply lost and forgotten, and we don’t even realize it. Ancient art that was intended to last for eternity is slowly eroding, and contemporary artists now incorporate ephemerality into their works in acceptance of the fact that nothing lasts forever...
75,000 years ago: All the artworks made by people around this time have been destroyed or are lost. Besides some drilled snail shells that were found in a cave in South Africa, everything else is probably gone or stuck in a rock or underground somewhere.
40,000 years ago: Some petroglyphs remain, but maybe some art works that are still extant we don’t even recognize as art because we don’t know how to interpret them.
6,000 – 2,000 years ago: Most of the art from Ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, China, Persia, India, Ancient Greece and Rome is gone. The rest is damaged in some way or another (missing limbs, broken in half, water damage) and can be found in the Louvre and the British Museum, et al. All of those white marble classical statues everyone loves so much? They used to be painted bright, garish colors apparently, but the paint’s worn off.
2,400 years ago: Speaking of the British Museum, they still hold one of the most (in)famous works of stolen art: the classical Greek marble sculptures that were originally part of the Acropolis in Athens. They even had a notorious nickname: the Elgin Marbles, named after the Earl who looted them from Greece. These mouldering shrines, it was argued, weren’t under the proper care in their native land. Word has it that a janitor of the British Museum tried to tidy up the marbles, and ended up knocking off noses and such. Other 19th century staff then polished the shit out of them causing “irreparable damage” according to the dismayed Greeks, who are still awaiting restitution. In fact, there are lots of people out there awaiting restitution of stolen objects hoarded by the British Museum.
1,200-400 years ago: A lot of this art is still around because it’s been kept in churches, mosques and temples devoted to religions that people still care about. Unless it was kept in a church, mosque or temple that was raided by a rival religious group. This happened a lot.
180 years ago: The world's very first experimental photographs no longer exist because they faded away. It wasn't until nearly a decade later when the process to fix the photographic image indefinitely was discovered.
100 years ago: The Mona Lisa was stolen and then found two years later when the thief tried to sell the painting.
96 years ago: The seminal readymade artwork by Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, is discarded after it was rejected by the Society of Independent Artists Exhibition in 1917. Duchamp authorized Fountain replicas in 1950. Another one of Duchamp’s readymades, In Advance of the Broken Arm, was mistaken by an employee of a major museum as an ordinary snow shovel and disappeared. Duchamp simply supplied a new snow shovel to replace it.
80-70 years ago: The Nazis didn’t like modern art and destroyed a lot of it. Paintings they did like they just confiscated.
50-40 years ago: The Minimalist painter Agnes Martin destroyed almost all of her own paintings, attempting to wipe away the evidence of her first experiments at abstraction. John Baldessari cremated all of his early paintings one day in 1970. He still has the ashes.
40-30 years ago: Every subway graffiti masterpiece from NYC c.1970-1989 was routinely destroyed by the Metro Transit Agency.
Rachel Whiteread's House getting demolished in 1994.
20 years ago: Rachel Whiteread’s monumental sculpture House, a concrete cast of the interior of a condemned Victorian house in East London, was demolished by the council.
6 years ago: A thirty-eight-ton sculpture by Richard Serra went missing from the Reina Sofia in Madrid. A Telegraph article describes that the “police investigation concluded that theft was implausible. The piece, which had taken five cranes to move, was thought to be too awkward to handle, and it was worth almost nothing.”
3 years ago: Artist Michael Landy opens Art Bin at the South London Gallery. Artists were invited to throw in any artwork they wished to discard. Works by Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin and Gillian Wearing were chucked there alongside the works of countless art students.
(Image at top: Michael Landy, Art Bin, installation view, 2010, South London Gallery.)