Wanted ArtWhen I was a teenager, I used to go to our local post office each day to pick up my stack of newspapers to deliver around town. Yes, I was once a "paperboy." I delivered about 25 copies each afternoon and maybe 30 or so each Sunday morning. For this I earned the princely sum of about $4.25 per week. As I waited for them to pass me the bundle of papers, I used to kill time reading the wanted posters. Okay, so it wasn't War and Peace, more like Crime and Punishment maybe. I mention this because if you happen to be around Berlin these days, you might spot a rather unusual "wanted" poster designed by the famous British artist, Lucian Freud depicting his friend, fellow artist Francis Bacon. No, Bacon has done nothing wrong...well, it's kind of a long story...
Way back in 1952, almost fifty years ago, Lucien painted a tiny portrait of his friend Francis on a piece of copper plate. It measured a mere 18 x 13 cm (about the size of a postcard). In what may have been the shrewdest art purchase of the year, the Tate Gallery bought the portrait painted by the then unknown Freud (unknown except for the name he shared with his famous grandfather). Thirty-six years later, in 1988, the British Council organised a foreign retrospective of Freud's work (Lucien, not Sigmund). The tiny portrait was one of the star attractions of the show. But on Friday, May 27, 1988, someone stole it. It was not exactly the art heist of the century. In fact, except for its value, it was more akin to shoplifting than grand larceny. Remarkably, security at the Neue Nationalgalerie on Potsdamer Strausse in what was then West Berlin, on that day was practically non-existent. Not a single guard was on duty from the hours of eleven a.m. to four p.m. And of course the work was so small, it would have easily fit into a jacket pocket.
There was mention of the theft in the international press at the time, but due in no small part to the embarrassment of Berlin museum officials, the Tate and the British Council made little effort to get the work back. The show was immediately closed and some nefarious character had a free portrait of a rather homely looking famous artist. That was 13 years ago, and now Lucien Freud wants the painting back so that it might be included in yet another retrospective, this one scheduled for next June. He's offering a reward of 300,000 deutsche marcs (100,000 pounds sterling) for its return, no questions asked. Nowhere on the 2,200 wanted posters are mentioned either artist's names, only the request: "Would the person who now has possession, kindly consider allowing me to show the painting in my exhibition at the Tate next June?" The cost of the international publicity campaign is being underwritten by two anonymous individuals. It's a long shot by any reckoning. Oh, and another problem, the posters are now being taken down - stolen as collectors' items.
Contributed by Lane, Jim
26 June 2001