The Lost Painting

History that reads like a novel.

Book CoverI saw The Lost Painting by Jonathan Harr in a copy of Bookmarks, a magazine full of book reviews. I added it to my wish list.

The Taking of ChristThe book is an account of the finding of a painting by Caravaggio, a 17th century Italian artist. The painting, called The Taking of Christ, was found in the 1990s by a restorer.

Evidently, many paintings from that time were lost — they’d be sold by the artist or a dealer to a wealthy patron or art collector to be hung in a home. Over the years, the paintings would be moved around, handed down to descendants, sold, and resold. The records regarding these paintings were not always complete, so paintings would disappear from the records and thus “disappear” from the art world. In some cases, a painting’s value would be understated and the painting, aged, dirty, and possibly damaged would simply be discarded by an owner. Many masterpieces were lost this way.

The book tells the story of how two art history students stumbled upon some evidence that the painting had been sold to a Scotsman in 1802, who believed the painting was done by a different artist. The painting was then traced to an auction house where the trail went cold. Had it been sold? No one knew. And no one knew what had become of it.

The book is written like a novel, complete with dialog and some characterization. But all the characters are real people, many of whom were interviewed by the author during his research. This keeps the book from being a dry history tome. Instead, it has life and is quite interesting to the average reader.

The book was listed on the New York Times Book Review 10 Best Books of the Year for 2006. The edition I read included an epilogue by the author which covers the discovery of another version of the same painting.

I recommend the book to anyone interested in art, history, art history, or the process of searching for lost artwork.

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