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The Art World's Unsolved Mysteries

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Researchers working on the Da Vinci mural project
Researchers working to uncover Da Vinci's hidden mural, March 12, 2012

Murder, theft, and hidden identity describe just a few mysteries confounding the art world. The business side of Art can get messy, especially when the stakes are high. How did a billionaire legally "steal" a $10 million painting? Why would Van Gogh shoot himself in the chest? And what would a mobster do with fine art? These stories and more lay ahead, some resolved, others only raising more questions, but all worth a read if you enjoy a good mystery.

Did Van Gogh really kill himself?

The Impressionist master died penniless in 1890 at age 37, after suffering from chronic depression. His dying confession to his brother and the authorities was that he shot himself in the chest. Yet the authors of the recently released, Van Gogh, The Life, claim that two teenagers actually shot Van Gogh, following testimony that the boys had tormented the artist all summer. No independent evidence supports the artist's confession, and no gun was ever found. The authors believe Van Gogh's deathbed confession was a ruse to protect the teens. Leo Jansen, curator of the Van Gogh Museum and editor of the artist's letters, said the theory makes for a "great book," but experts have doubts about the authors' claims.

Finders Keepers? The $10 million Degas that disappeared

Around 1992, a Degas ballerina portrait vanished from the N.Y. apartment of heiress Huguette Clark, who was in hospital care. It's unclear how the painting later ended up for sale in a gallery down the street, eventually coming to rest in Missouri on Henry Bloch's walls (the billionaire co-owner of H&R Block). Clark did not want to create a scandal and never reported the work as stolen. When it was discovered at the Bloch's in 2005, Clark's claim to the work was on shaky ground. After a legal battle, in 2008 Clark agreed to donate her ballerina to the Nelson-Atkins Museum, where the Blochs are patrons. Clark's physician had to testify that the 102-year-old was competent to make the decision to forfeit her painting. The catch? In 2005, Clark created a new will cutting out her family, instead leaving millions to her nurse, housekeeper, and that same physician. A legal battle is currently underway over this will, which would throw into question her competency in these decisions. Meanwhile, the stolen painting has returned to the Blochs home, on permanent loan from the museum. (Above right: Dancer Making Points, 1879-1880, by Edgar Degas)

Who's that Lady?

What is it about the Mona Lisa that has enthralled art historians fans for centuries, and prompts new theories Mona Lisa by Leonardo Da Vinciabout the work every few months? This past year alone stories and claims have cropped up about mysterious letters and numbers hidden in her eyes; hidden landscape details that reveal the true location of the portrait; a new, intriguing copy of the Mona Lisa discovered at the Prado museum; other landscape hints that suggest the work was created a decade later than originally believed; and the discovered remains of an Italian noblewoman that one researcher wants to exhume to determine if she's the real muse. Add these speculations to the dozens that have come before and are still being investigated, and you would have a novel! In the meantime, here are several of the recent theories that have emerged.

Will the real Banksy please stand up?

Banksy, the subversive graffiti superstar, has gone to great lengths to keep his identity secret. He forfeited attending the Oscars where his film, Exit Through the Gift Shop, was nominated, because he was prohibited from wearing a mask. But has the real Banksy already been revealed? In July 2008, the Daily Mail published an article uncovering "compelling evidence" that Banksy is 34-year-old Robin Gunningham. The only hard evidence offered was a photograph taken four years ago in Jamaica of a man with a bag of spray cans by his feet. Interviews with Gunningham's former schoolmates turned up suggestive comments like, "He was one of three people in my year who were extremely talented at art. I am not at all surprised if he is Banksy." Whether or not Gunningham is Banksy, hype around his real name is as high as ever. An auction on eBay this January offered to reveal the identity of Banksy to the highest bidder; the sale was removed from the website one day before it was scheduled to close. Was the whole thing another Banksy prank? Banksy in Exit through the Gift Shop, and Robin Gunningham

Left: Banksy in Exit Through the Gift Shop; Right: Robin Gunningham in Jamaica

Is Leonardo Da Vinci behind that mural?

While only recently making headlines, this mystery has plagued Maurizio Seracini, who runs UC San Diego's Center of Interdisciplinary Science for Art, Architecture and Archaeology, for 36 years. He strives to solve whether "The Battle of Anghiari," a long-lost work of Leonardo Da Vinci, is preserved behind a Vasari mural in Florence. Da Vinci began his mural in 1505, but it remained unfinished when he left Florence in 1506, and some believe it was frescoed over by Vasari decades after. After inserting a probe through cracks in the fresco, Seracini announced that the color fragments retrieved are consistent with pigments used by Da Vinci (see image at top of article). Even so, the paint could also have been used by a number of Leonardo's contemporaries.

Who pulled off the largest theft of all time?

In Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, the ornate yet empty frames hanging on the Dutch Room's wallsStorm on the Sea of Galilee by Rembrandt are sad reminders of the crime that took occurred on March 18, 1990. Thieves dressed as Boston cops handcuffed the museum guards workers in the basement, and paintings were ripped from their frames, such as Storm On The Sea of Galilee by Rembrandt (pictured right) and The Concert, one of only 36 known Vermeer paintings. Two other works by Rembrandt, five Degas sketches, a Manet painting, a landscape by Flink and a bronze finial from a Napoleonic battle flag all disappeared. Worth an estimated $500 million today, the Gardner robbery remains the largest single property theft of all time. Charley Hill, a former detective turned private investigator, has been following a network of leads for 16 years, all leading to Irish American mob boss "Whitey" Bulger. Bulger, number two on the FBI's most wanted list with a $2 million bounty on his head, was captured in last June. According to Hill's theory, "he's interested in using them as barter." Is Bulger really the culprit and will he turn over the works, at least for "a softer pillow and a better view" in prison? Even so, a new book, THE GARDNER HEIST: The True Story of the World's Largest Unsolved Art Theft, claims the real culprit is in fact another mobster, David Turner.  

Written by MutualArt staff