That mankind can be destructive is obvious and beyond argument. So, rather than focusing on people accidentally destroying art or art that was lost because of natural disasters, a special emphases needs to be placed on the willful destruction of pieces of art. Why, you ask? Because the willful destruction of art, be it in the name of God, war, politics, or whatever, perfectly illustrates the impulsively destructive side of mankind and what we are capable of doing. People destroy priceless things for the stupidest of reasons, and then they are gone forever.
Here is a look at some of the most shameful instances of art loss and destruction.
8. The Idiotic Breitwiesers
Between 1995 and 2001, Stephane Breitwieser stole 239 works of art valued at $1.4 billion from 172 museums across Europe. The Frenchman was a huge art buff and decided he needed to have his own private collection. With his girlfriend acting as a decoy, he easily stole priceless works of art from small time museums and collections with lax security. So easily, in fact, did he still stuff that he would simply walk out the door with the items. His most expensive theft was Sybille, Princess of Cleves, by Lucas Cranach the Elder, which he cut out from its frame at an auction it was about to be sold at.
Rather than selling his booty, he kept the works of art crammed in his bedroom in his mother’s house. He took good care of the art: he kept it dim to not ruin the paintings, even had some of them reframed, and made sure no one handled them.
If he was just a clever art thief, Breitwieser would not grace this list. Instead, he and his mother became two of the most nefarious art destroyers of the twentieth century. He was finally caught in 2001 trying to steal a 16th century bugle in Switzerland. When his mother got wind of his arrest, she went into his room and went on a rampage. She cut and carved up paintings, shoved them down her garbage disposal, and threw many items into the Rhone River. Apparently, she had no idea how much the painters she destroyed were worth, and claimed to destroy them to punish her son and not destroy evidence. Riiiiiiiiight.
Utlimately, about 60 priceless paintings were destroyed and the son, girlfriend, and mother all served about 2 years in jail. Justice served!
7. Abbey of Monte Cassino Obliterated
St. Benedict of Nursia, known for starting Christian monasticism in Europe, founded his Benedictine monastery at Monte Cassino around 529. It served as an important model for future monasteries, and became a national symbol of Italy. During the Second World War, as the Allies advanced through Italy in the beginning of 1994, it housed women and children refugees fleeing from battle.
Except the Allies didn’t know this, and blew the ancient abbey to smithereens.
On February 15, 1944, American bombers dropped 1,400 tons of bombs on the buildings because they were afraid German soldiers were stationed there and were using the abbey as a lookout post and a potential super-fortress. Too bad the Allies had faulty intelligence, and in fact, the Germans had made an agreement with the monks there not to use the abbey as a fortress as long as they remained. Ironically, after the Americans blew the place up, the monks and refugees who didn’t die fled, and the Germans then moved into the rubble and fortified themselves, the then destroyed monastery was in fact better defensive position AFTER its destruction than before!
The Germans were forced to retreat eventually, at an enormous cost of life and the destruction of a priceless monastery that, beyond its religious purposes, contained many beautiful mosaics, enamels, and handcrafted goldsmithery.
6. Looting of the National Museum of Iraq
During the 2003 Iraq War, the National Museum of Iraq was ransacked and looted. During April, the museum’s staff fled, and it the museum was open game between April 10-12. During this period, 40 large statues, 3,100 jars, vessels, and pottery shards, 10,000 small objects, and countless other treasures were reported stolen. Luckily, many items were spared because they were locked up, the loss of electricity made most of the museum too dark for the thieves, and many precious artifacts were in fact being stored for safekeeping in other locations.
Although the FBI and other authorities have located and reclaimed some of the lost items, an estimated 10,000 items still remain on the black market. Other archeological sites across Iraq were left unguarded, with 400,000 to 600,000 items possibly stolen countrywide. Who knows how many priceless items from the cradle of civilization were lost.
5. The Allied Fire Bombing of Dresden’s Cultural Center
Even more controversial than the Allied destruction of Monte Cassino was the decision to firebomb the German city of Dresden near the end of the Second World War, between February 13-15, 1945. Even though the city was largely untouched by 1945, and many considered Dresden as insignificant to the almost defeated Nazi war machine, the Allies denied this and unleashed hell upon Dresden. Literally, hell.
This 13th century city, known for its beautiful architecture and as a European center for art, music, culture and science, endured four bombing raids of 1,300 bombers that dropped nearly 4,000 tons of high explosive and incendiary bombs into the city. Seeing as World War Two allied bombing was hardly accurate, the city was obliterated.
Because the American and British bombers used high explosives, many people died from the heat, lack of oxygen, and fires caused by the bombing. So many people died that the corpses were heaped into large piles and set on fire. Between 25-35,000 people died, and the cultural center of the city annihilated, with priceless pieces of art and architecture destroyed.
4. Destruction of the Maya Codices
The Maya had a complex, hieroglyphic writing system that they recorded on their stone buildings and beautifully decorated folding books, known as the Maya Codices. They constructed the books from paper made from the bark of trees, and employed highly trained, specialized scribes to record practically every aspect of their culture. This all changed in the 15th and 16h centuries, when the Spanish conquered Central and South America, and literally erased the Pre-Columbian Mayan written word.
At the time of the Spanish conquest, there were so many of these books everywhere, that Bishop Diego de Landa ordered them destroyed because he felt they were hindering the Christianization of the Maya. Over the next hundred years or so, all but three complete and a partial fourth codex were destroyed, along with it erasing vital aspects of Mayan civilization forever. Countless important pieces of art were obliterated in the name of Christianity. The Maya lost the ability to write their alphabet by the end of the 16h century, and it took Westerners centuries to eventually decipher the Maya Codices.
3. The Chinese Cultural Revolution
During the Chinese Cultural Revolution between 1966 and 1976, the communist government in China to eliminate bourgeois elements from Chinese Society. In the end, instead of removing just Western influences, the government destroyed many pieces of art, artifacts and cultural sites from the pre-communist era, and persecuted, maimed, and killed hundreds of thousands. For instance, the government destroyed 6,000 Tibetan monasteries, destroyed religious books of Muslims, Christians, and Buddhists, and unknown numbers of artifacts and pieces of art taken from people’s homes and destroyed on the spot.
Burning priceless Tibetan stuff.
The Cultural Revolution was a total fiasco. It absolutely ruined China’s economy, set back education, and alienated Chinese minorities. The upheaval was undeniably enormous.
2. Taliban Destruction of the Buddhas of Bamayn
You really have to hand it to the Taliban: they sure have a knack of pissing off the entire world. Before the United States went in and blasted the Taliban from power in Afghanistan, Mullah Mohammed Omar, leader of the incredibly conservative group, ordered the destruction of ancient statues of Buddha carved into the side of a mountain. Apparently, even though there are no Buddhists in Afghanistan nor have there been any for hundreds of years, the Taliban ban on ALL FORMS of imagery, in line with their strict version of Islam, made the statues idolatrous affronts to Islam doomed to destruction. This strange about-face occurred after a statement in 1999 in which Mullah Omar promised to protect the statues because of their tourism value.
The Taliban shot anti-aircraft guns and artillery at the 180 and 121 foot Buddha carvings, the largest of their kind in the world. The statues were carved into the side of a cliff in the Bamyan valley in the 6th century, and were the most famous cultural landmarks in the region. After the artillery failed, the Taliban used dynamite and anti-tank mines to blast the statues from the mountain. The 1,500 year old priceless works of art were gone forever.
1. Art Plundered and Lost by the Nazis
Between 1933 and the end of the Second World War in 1945, the Nazis looted 20% of the art in Europe. Yes, look at that number again, ONE-FIFTH OF ALL THE ART IN ALL OF EUROPE. Although many items were recovered after the war ended, the sheer number of missing art is staggering: 0ver 100,000 works of art are missing. Where they are is anyone’s best guess, but it’s safe to assume a fair amount was destroyed during the war.
Raphael’s Portrait of a Young Man, looted from Poland, is still missing.
Why did the Nazi’s plunder so much art? Leaders like Herman Goering stole art and made their homes into virtual museums are art galleries, and the Nazis beefed up their own museums as well. The Nazis in general took anything of value when they conquered a country, so why not art?
Sadly, the Nazis also stole valuable art and artifacts from Jewish families before sending them to the concentration camp. Recently, returned pieces like Matisse’s Le Mur Rose and five Klimt paintings returned to Jewish families bring hope that more art can be recovered and returned to their rightful owners, descendants of Holocaust victims or not. Hopefully it is not too late for pieces out there not yet destroyed.
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