Lost, Stolen Or Shredded by Rick Gekoski
(Profile Books $36.99)
The universal appeal of the "What If" speculation underpins this fascinating collection of artistic losses ranging from historic thefts to works that never actually realised. What if Max Brod had obeyed Kafka's wishes and destroyed his manuscripts? What have we lost by the burning of Byron's memoirs? What treasures of literature went up in smoke in the destruction of the library at Alexandria?
Not one of the 15 chapters, many of them extensions of Gekoski's popular broadcast series on BBC4, lacks drama. The fate of the jewelled edition of the Rubaiyat Of Omar Khayyam outstrips fiction, with the first example going down with the Titanic and the next melting in its strongbox in the heat of a World War II bombing raid on London. The theft of the Mona Lisa from the Louvre in 1911 has strong echoes of Inspector Clouseau in its bumbling incompetence.
Merely recounting the facts of the cases would make good reading but Gekoski does more than tell the tales.
The issues he raises about the nature of artistic ownership pose complex problems and he has little patience with the idea that there are simple solutions. There is, for example, the view that artworks should always return to their place of origin and, in his discussion of the fate of the Benin bronzes, Gekoski says it is hard to see why Nigeria should not morally and legally require their repatriation. But he also points out the Parthenon marbles were regularly looted by locals and, later, Egyptians showed very little care for the cultural glories of their ancestors.
In his piece on the destruction of Philip Larkin's journals, he raises the insoluble problem of "how morally corrupt is an artist allowed to be before we feel justified in turning our backs towards their work?". Eric Gill was an incestuous paedophile but his works still adorn public buildings in Britain. Gekoski says he can never look at them the same way knowing what he now knows about Gill, but he took issue with a librarian who turned down, for moral reasons, the chance to acquire three volumes of flagellation material compiled by T.H. White, who wrote The Sword in the Stone.
The book raises weighty issues but Gekoski, whose background is a winning mixture of academia and book dealing, has as good an eye for a joke as he has for a rare volume.
His account of how he tried to offload a Nabokov first edition procured for, then rejected by a vulgar Russian oligarch is a little gem of wry humour.
Though scholarly, he does not mince his words and his piece on the cavalier attitude towards Iraq's heritage by the "indefatigably loathsome Rumsfeld", the US Secretary of Defence, boils with righteous indignation.
There is also a sense of outrage in his chapter on a New Zealand art theft, the lifting of Colin McCahon's Urewera Mural from the visitor centre at Lake Waikaremoana.
Here, his sympathy lies firmly with Tuhoe in their anger at the injustices they have suffered, while he is grateful the picture was returned. Gekoski is no stranger to New Zealand and his account of the McCahon heist is a fine piece of balanced reporting.
At least we still have the McCahon, albeit slightly battered, but Liverpool never got its cathedral by Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Like most of the stories here, that is a matter for sincere regret.