Sherlock proves 23,000 missing artworks to France

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by Björn Schöpe
translated by Annika Backe

May 5, 2016 – A frequently repeated argument against private collecting is that private owners deprive the general public of its national heritage. Only the state could guarantee fiduciary storage of the cultural heritage of national importance for future generations. Again and again, however, real life gives rise to doubts about this perspective, as proven, for example, by the latest art scandal. 

This time, the problem child does not belong to the so-called “failure states”. Rather, it is France, one of the world’s richest countries. In France, the state-owned artworks are subject to the responsibility of different administrative bodies. This makes any administration difficult. In 1996, therefore, the Commission de récolement des dépôts d’œuvres d’art (CRDOA) was established. The aim of CRDOA was to record which artworks were in the possession of which institution, and also to locate these objects. In 2014, CRDOA launched an online database called Sherlock. It catalogues all artworks owned by the French state. In 2011, these objects amounted to nothing less than 430,000. In its annual report of 2015, CRDOA noted that the French state often has no idea as to the whereabouts of its possessions. The newspaper Libération was granted access to the online database Sherlock and ascertained: nearly 23,000 artworks cannot be found! 

The relevant objects are by no means only small-scale objects such as coins or silver spoons. In the Palace of Versailles, for instance, an entire 19th century bed is missing since 2000. Difficult to misplace, one is inclined to think…
To mention another example: since 2006, the French Embassy of Conakry (Guinea) misses five large-scale tapestries. The objects measure between 2 and 6 meters and were loaned from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to the Embassy to give it a more representative appearance. What happened to these tapestries? Nobody knows. This is a typical case. In their embassies, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs misses about 123 objects…
The Minstry of the Interior likewise lent objects, to embellish prefectures, town halls, and public places. Unfortunately, the recipient do not seem to have been properly informed that these objects were a) cultural heritage to be protected and b) on loan. To a 2014 inquiry of the Minstry of the Interior roughly 40% of the prefectures have not even stated if and where they kept the loans. Things are even worse in the overseas departments: 80% of the lent objects are currently impossible to trace.

Sherlock only illustrates how big the losses are – the database of course cannot retrieve the objects. But it can shed a light on who is responsible. About 90% of the untraceable artworks are subject to the care of three bodies: the Centre national des arts plastiques (CNAP) which is under the Ministry of Culture; the Service des musées de France and the Cité de la céramique.
The CNAP searches for 11,160 objects, most (54%) of which are paintings. The Service des musées de France cannot find 6,411 objects, mainly (65%) archaeological objects whereas the third institution primarily misses tableware objects, sculptures and vases. Of the objects Sherlock records as missing, only 251 objects have been successfully located. 

According to CRDOA’s President Jacques Sallois, the poor documentation of the whereabouts of cultural heritage is due to France’s long history of collecting, since, in the Napoleonic era, systematic inventories had not yet become standard practice. The current goal would be to create inventories in order to relocate the missing artworks. A comprehensive inventory could spoil the theft for many an official uninterested in the protection of cultural heritage. And this is very much called for, as testified by the case of Hughues Malecki: in February 2016, the sub-prefect of the Normandy was arrested for suspected illicit selling of cultural heritage placed in his care. 

Please find the Libération article here.

A summarizing English article can be read on Hyperallergic.

You may check with Sherlock here.

More information on the Hughes Malecki case is available here.

In the context of Malecki, other similar cases were highlighted in the Figaro.

And CRDOA’s annual reports can be found online.