Has the Best Art in the World Been Destroyed?

Bloomberg | James Tarmy

Museums are exhausting. Spend a few hours in the Louvre, the Prado, the British Museum, the Met, or the Uffizi and your legs get heavy as your attention span wanes. There’s so much to see—so many masterpieces from so many millennia— that it’s impossible to take it all in, however hard you try. But Noah Charney, the author of the new book The Museum of Lost Art, (May 4, $35) is less interested in all the art we have and preoccupied instead with the art that’s been lost. What’s been destroyed, he writes in the book’s introduction, includes “more masterpieces than all of the world’s museums combined.”

Charney’s premise is fairly uncontroversial: He argues that our understanding of art history is skewed by survivorship bias and that to understand the art we still have, it’s critical to put it in the context of what’s been lost. “Many lost works were more important and celebrated than those that have survived,” he writes. The book “seeks to correct this prejudice in favor of the survivors,” he continues, “and to resurrect and preserve the memory of the lost.” That’s no small task. Before its introduction is even over, the reader is left wondering how Charney will manage to fit the entirety of civilization’s missing creative output into 280 pages…read more

Image: The Amber Room, a space entirely covered in thin panels of amber, as installed in the Russian imperial palace Tsarskoe Selo, in a 1931 photo. During World War II, the room was disassembled and the panels lost or subsequently destroyed by Nazi troops. Source: Phaidon