At A Loss To Explain

The first thing that was blowing my mind about Short Circuit was not just, how could there have be a Johns Flag before the first [sic] Johns Flag, but how could there be a missing Johns Flag? I mean, seriously, wouldn’t that be rank just below the Gardner Vermeer in terms of stolen art? How could it be missing and the entire art world not have its eye out for it?
In fact, it’s just the opposite situation, where, when they’re not ignored completely, the stories of Short Circuit and its flag painting are misunderstood, misrepresented, and relegated to footnotes. It just didn’t make any sense.
But it also seemed that as long as Short Circuit was ensconced in Rauschenberg’s own collection, and Sturtevant’s replacement flag was in place, no one had ever undertaken an actual search for it, or an investigation into what had happened.
And given the nature and history of the relationship between Johns and Rauschenberg, and the extraordinary custody agreement they reached, which Johns wrote about in 1962, to never show, reproduce, or sell Short Circuit, it’s always been an open question to me whether the flag was actually ever “stolen,” or whether it was just missing. Or removed. Or disappeared [in either the transitive or intransitive sense of the word.]
The question I ended my first Short Circuit post with 18 months ago, which should have been the easiest question to answer, turned out to be one of the most complicated: Was the Short Circuit flag ever registered as stolen?
The first and shortest answer was no.

First off, I did the obvious thing and checked with the Art Loss Register, the art, auction & insurance industry’s international, centralized database of stolen art. Which turns out to cost like $75. And only after you pay, you are presented with the terms of the inquiry, whereby you promise to pay the ALR a percentage of any transaction–sale or reward–that results from their information.
Which promptly freaked me the hell out. Because this was not a drill. I was in no position to sign away 5% of the sale of Jasper Johns’ ur-Flag, which was worth what, $50 million? $100 million? $120 million if you include the Rauschenberg frame? [Which, of course, was being marketed by Gagosian at the time.] So yeah, no.
I promptly nixed the formal inquiry [without getting a refund, yo], and contacted ALR directly with my inquiry and pleaded my scholarly or journalistic credentials, anything to get out of owing them $5 million. And they checked. And there was no Johns remotely resembling the Flag in date or dimensions in their registry.
But what did that mean? It did not mean that the Flag had been stolen and found and deleted. ALR’s records are permanent. Once a work is ever registered, its file notes it, even if it’s ever recovered, or the case is otherwise closed.
But ALR was founded in 1991. Could the record just not be there? Almost certainly not. ALR was founded as a for-profit, digitized reincarnation of the “Stolen Art Alert” registry begun in 1976 by the non-profit, International Foundation for Art Research. IFAR, in turn was a roll-up of several independent stolen art registries, including the New York-based Art Dealer’s Association, which was active in the 1960s. The registry chain has remained intact.
No matter when the flag painting went missing, ALR told me, if it had been reported at all, it would have a file in ALR. And it didn’t.
So even though Leo Castelli told Michael Crichton it had been stolen, and fenced back to him. And even though Calvin Tomkins reported the same story about it being “stolen” in his Rauschenberg biography a few years later. The Short Circuit flag had never been reported stolen.
So in what world would a foundational painting by a major artist go missing, get publicly described as “stolen,” and yet never actually get reported as stolen? Was this really just a difference of opinion over what had happened? And those who spoke about it–Castelli and Rauschenberg–called it stolen, while those who did not consider it stolen did not discuss it? I’ll let you put that list of names together yourself.
But then the Castelli Archive opened up at the Smithsonian. And I eventually found some memos from 8-9 June 1965 about a “Loss of Painting” and eventually the “Theft of painting”, and contacts with the NYPD and the insurance company.
And then I eventually tracked down the police report. And so yes, the painting had been reported stolen to the police, presumably for the insurance claim. But it turned out that it had gone missing in April 1965, not June. And in fact, there had been a two month hunt by the Castelli crew, contacting people who’d had access to the warehouse to see who might have taken it. And only then did they call the police and the insurance company.
So it had been stolen, but not registered.
But but. On a later trip to the Archives of American Art, while I was looking through some other Castelli materials, I came across a copy of a 1965 letter, dated June 16 or 19? [I only got a blurry phonecam image of the letter, which the AAA has not authorized for reproduction. But it’s a two-digit date, so it’s definitely after Castelli’s meetings with the insurance agent.]
It’s addressed to the Art Dealer’s Association, and it reads, “Enclosed please find a photograph of the Rauschenberg work from which the Jasper Johns flag was stolen.” Presumably, there was a copy of Rudy Burckhardt’s vintage photo of Short Circuit.
So it had been stolen, and it had been registered, but as part of a Rauschenberg.
Except it hadn’t. Because I ran the letter by the Art Loss Register again, looking for a stolen Rauschenberg fragment. And there was none, nothing even close. They had no record of the Burckhardt photo, either. And I got the same assurance that if the ADA had created a file on it, the ALR would have it. But they didn’t, and so they don’t.
So that’s where it stands: the Short Circuit flag was stolen. And searched for. And not found. And reported to the police and the insurance company. And the stolen art registry. Where it was somehow never actually registered.
And in fact, that Castelli letter is pretty short on details, isn’t it? No title, dimensions, year, materials, nothing. What I still don’t know is how typical Castelli’s letter was, if it followed the ADA’s standard procedure for reporting a stolen work. But it really doesn’t seem that helpful to tracking a stolen Johns down. And so it seems to me that something had to have happened on the ADA end, so that even though they’d received a letter, they’d know not to actually record this flag as stolen.
Which, if it wasn’t stolen, then what was it? I’ve always been describing it as “removed.” It’s a distinction I was especially careful to make when I spoke with someone–a dealer–who I’m pretty confident handled the Short Circuit flag after it was[n’t] stolen.
Have you seen me, Jasper Johns’ little Short Circuit flag?