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22.8.04

Disappearing Patrimony

As someone who works regularly in national libraries and research institutions, this story had me wincing. An article (Les oeuvres «perdues» de la République, August 13) by Léopold Sanchez for Le Figaro Magazine states that a 14th-century manuscript Hebrew Bible, sold at Christie's in 2003, was traced to the collection of the Bibliothèque nationale de France. (A man named Michel Garel admitted the crime, as well as the mutilation of numerous manuscripts, to sell off precious illuminations by individual page.) That led the French government to appoint the Bady Commission, to investigate the scandalous thefts from national collections in France. They have completed an inventory of about 100,000 works, of which the incredible number of 12,500 appear to have been stolen. According to the head of the commission, Jean-Pierre Bady:

It's the first inventory of this size, and it means a line-by-line comparison of the collection catalogues with the actual presence of the works. Our mandate was supposed to extend for two years, but in the view of the amount of material and the complications we have encountered on site, we do not see finishing before 2007.
I am afraid to learn of all the horrors they will discover. Most of the time, they discover that a work has been shelved incorrectly or moved somewhere without the appropriate paper trail. Sometimes, they uncover incredible stories:
That's how they recently recovered a painting by Le Dominiquin Domenichino [Domenico Zampieri (1581-1641)] that had disappeared from the national collection twenty years ago. It had been held in the Musée de Toul, where the inventory had confirmed its absence from the reserve section. The mayor's office had concluded that the painting was destroyed during the fire that ravaged the museum in 1939. Nevertheless, an English expert claimed to have seen it since then. They ended up learning, thanks to a loose tongue, that the painting had been kept in a private collection. At the commission's insistence, the Musée de Toul sued and an investigation was begun, which indeed confirmed that the painting was in the home of a collector, who claimed to have bought it at a flea market. Furthermore, the police were surprised to discover, hanging on the wall, another canvas that had disappeared from the municipal museum. Because the facts of the case are so long past, no charges have been filed.
There are plenty of other horrifying stories in the article. Myself, I have been impressed with the availability of precious documents to serious researchers in France. This story demonstrates that perhaps the greatest danger comes not from the public in the reading rooms (although there are plenty of stories of that sort of theft, too), but from the people who have access behind the doors because they work there.

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