The Ark of the Covenant may remain a mystery, but Ovation's "Raiders of the Lost Art" delves into the stories behind the art world's most priceless treasures, from paintings plundered by the Nazis to newly found Van Goghs, Vermeers and Fabergé eggs to the man who stole the Mona Lisa. Premiering on Aug. 30, the series uses re-enactments, rare archival footage and expert commentary to tell its fascinating stories. Cal Seville, vice president of development and series producer at 3DD, shared his insights.
MNN: How and why did you choose the six mystery subjects? What was compelling about each?
Cal Seville: When the idea for the series was being developed, the Van Gogh Museum had just revealed a newly confirmed Van Gogh, the first since the 1920s. The fact that it had been sitting in an attic in Norway for so long was such a brilliant tale, it just had to be covered. As the series started to kick into gear, this huge story suddenly came to light of Cornelius Gurlitt, who had over $1 billion worth of paintings by the likes of Picasso and Matisse hidden away in his humble Munich apartment. It was so remarkable and unexpected we chose to make an entire episode about it.
We were incredibly fortunate with the timing in this series. I'd always wanted to do a show on Fabergé eggs because I have a personal interest in the history of the Russian Revolution. But one of our key interviewees, Kieran McCarthy of [antique dealers] Wartski, suddenly asked if he could delay our scheduled interview by a few days because a story was about to break. Unbelievably, that story was that he had been instrumental in the recovery of a Fabergé egg missing for almost a century and had brokered a sale of it for $30 million. Suffice to say that was a delightful and unexpected addition to our show on missing Fabergé eggs!
With "Monuments Men," obviously the George Clooney movie was out recently and I wanted to go into the specifics of what was stolen during Word War II. The theft of the "Mona Lisa" was an easy decision because not many people are aware that the most famous painting in the world went missing for two years. It was a pre-television event and has therefore been rather forgotten. People are often shocked when you tell them about it. And finally, Vermeer could be the most mysterious of all the great artists of the world and that sense of mystery makes for great television.
What kind of research went into each one?
My team and I did extensive research both in terms of published literature and online material. For example, with Fabergé eggs there is a very enthusiastic online community dedicated to getting these scraps of information out of the Russian bureaucratic black hole from the time of the 1917 Revolution. These pieces of information have been key in helping to track down missing Fabergé eggs and other Romanov treasures that were lost in the chaos. We were very fortunate as well with the people who agreed to be part of the series: Curators at the National Gallery in London, the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., the Mauritshuis, and the Rijksmuseum in the Netherlands etc. These people have so much knowledge and have written so much in their published works that we had plenty of intriguing lost art stories to bring to the screen.
Men stand next to the recovered "Mona Lisa" in 1913 after it had been stolen two years earlier. (Photo: Ovation)
Did anything particularly surprise you, and will it surprise viewers?
I was very surprised at how many of Leonardo da Vinci's works were lost after his death. He was so lauded as a genius during his lifetime that it seems amazing to me that people could lose track of his paintings, especially when he made very few works. It's been a real battle to get them back! I think people would be surprised by that and by the simple fact that the "Mona Lisa" was completely missing for two years and had been stolen by an Italian man hoping to bring it "home." Everyone who worked on the series was surprised by the story of Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, who was Vincent van Gogh's sister-in-law. She's not very well-known but it's she we have to thank for bringing his genius to the world and building his legacy. Without her, he was in danger of becoming a truly forgotten artist, and I think people will be delightfully surprised by her story.
There was a lot written/shown about the "Monuments Men" after the movie release last year and Smithsonian TV special. What's new or different in your approach to the story?
The people who formed the "Monuments Men" were so remarkable and their story has been covered so well in the Robert M. Edsel book, which was the basis of the George Clooney film. Therefore I decided it would be best for us to focus more on the art that was taken, and what was recovered rather than the people involved — how it was looted at the start of the war and the sheer scale of the Nazi operation. We told the story through the masterpieces: How they were taken and then how they were recovered from impending destruction.
I didn't know that both Van Gogh and Vermeer were unknown in their lifetimes. What turned it around for both?
The Dutch didn't know what they had! Van Gogh became famous very soon after he passed away. Since he came late to his artistic career and died at 37, very few people had seen his works. But once they got out and people were made aware of them, it's almost as if he started modern art as so many painters were inspired by him. Our show on Van Gogh concentrates on the story of Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, who was married to Vincent's brother, Theo. Theo died just six months after Vincent, so it was all on her to establish the Van Gogh legacy and she did it brilliantly. As for Vermeer, he really was largely forgotten for centuries. He never achieved much fame in his own lifetime and that was limited to his hometown of Delft. Rembrandt was the giant of his era and Vermeer was relegated to a far, far lower status. In our episode, we show that it was a French explorer who stumbled onto a Vermeer painting in the 19th century. He then made it his life's work to bring Vermeer to the world. And the world was amazed by this astonishing artist who was never really known outside of small pockets of the Netherlands.
Do you think there's really a lot of undiscovered works by all the featured artists and other famous artists? Do you have other stories in mind if you do another season?
Yes, World War II led to many works being lost. Several Van Goghs are known to have disappeared during that time and we have pictures of some of them. There are records of Vermeers from the 17th century that aren't around today and could turn up anywhere. There are still seven missing imperial Fabergé eggs that may be sitting on someone's mantelpiece without them realizing it. The one egg that was found this year had been purchased by an American scrap dealer at a flea market. He ended up making a $30 million profit on that investment. As for another season, there are missing Raphaels, lost Michelangelos and many Picassos have vanished over the decades. There's many more potential stories to be told.
What's the takeaway for viewers?
That the art world is full of fascinating mysteries; that even the works of the greatest artists in history get lost; that fakers can sometimes fool even the most esteemed experts; that some artists are just so far ahead of their time that their work is lost due to a lack of appreciation. It has to be rediscovered by later generations for the genius that it was. And of course, it's not just in the movies; there really are immensely valuable lost treasures out there, just waiting to be found.
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