The scale of the scandal of the management of BYU's art collection was becoming clear just as I entered the art history program there in the late 1980's. For years, the collection had been ignored by everyone except one professor who served as an ersatz administrator/curator. Without a museum or any galleries to show it in, and without even an inventory or an institutional awareness of what was in it, the collection was just left unattended. Faculty could go grab a Homer drawing or a Rembrandt etching for their offices. The always-open conference room where we met for our contemporary art seminar had a Mark Tobey painting on a hook.
By the time the University announced plans to build an art museum and had begun a computerized inventory, they found that almost 10% of the collection, over 1,200 objects, had gone missing, 900 through theft, fraud, forgery, misplacement, unauthorized sales or trades, or returns to original donors. As this long, fascinating, but maddeningly incomplete article in the Deseret News reports, a couple of folks at BYU have been doggedly pursuing the return of the artworks since 1986.
The story focuses on a couple of high-profile cases where unscrupulous dealers seduced or duped the BYU professor in charge of the collection. A NY dealer named Dion O'Wyatt took a Monet and some Homer drawings from Provo to NYC, ostensibly for appraisal in advance of an unapproved sale. Then he had a street artist copy the works, and he quickly sold the originals. The forgeries went undetected for 16 years.
To their credit, BYU went public and disclosed the full scale of their mismanagement. Al the missing works have been entered into the Art Loss Register. Some works, like a Julian Alden Weir painting now in the Metropolitan Museum's collection, have been located, but their return or ownership are in dispute. The article has no mention of any of the donors who got/took work back, or of the other dealers or instigators of this fascinatingly obtuse escapade. I'm glad the movie mentioned in the story didn't get made, but I'd love to read a fuller accounting.
Stolen art -- BYU searches the world to recover pilfered pieces [deseretnews.com via mom]