Top 5 Unsolved Art Mystries

5 The Man Under The Woman Ironing

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Photo credit: Pablo Picasso via

Using an infrared camera, a second painting was discovered under Pablo Picasso’s prized 1904 painting Woman Ironing after an attempted robbery damaged the canvas. The second picture is an upside-down image of a man with a mustache. Scholars are haunted by questions of who the man was and whether Picasso painted him. They’ve ruled out a self-portrait of Picasso.

The painter was only 22 years old and living in Paris when he created the early masterpiece Woman Ironing. It was from his Blue Period, which was dominated by somber subjects in mostly blue tones. However, he was always strapped for cash and frequently repainted over his canvases.

Some experts believe that the brush strokes and type of paint used on the hidden picture confirm that Picasso painted it. But there is intense debate as to who is portrayed in the painting. He appears to be another artist, possibly sculptor Mateu Fernandez de Soto or painter Ricard Canals. However, the more the experts research, the more they disagree.

Another hidden portrait was discovered under the Picasso masterpiece The Blue Room. Like Woman Ironing, this painting is also from his early Blue Period in Paris. Infrared technology revealed a man with a beard wearing a bow tie and jacket. It was the unusual brushstrokes on the top painting that propelled scientists and art experts to probe further with this one. Again, it doesn’t appear to be a self-portrait, but the man’s identity and relationship to Picasso is a mystery.

“Our audiences are hungry for this,” said Dorothy Kosinski, director of The Phillips Collection. “It’s kind of detective work. It’s giving them a doorway of access that I think enriches, maybe adds mystery, while allowing them to be part of a piecing together of a puzzle. The more we can understand, the greater our appreciation is of its significance in Picasso’s life.”

4 Study By Candlelight

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Photo via Wikimedia

The controversy with Study by Candlelight is whether it’s a real painting by Vincent Van Gogh or a forgery, as claimed by his nephew. It looks like a self-portrait of Van Gogh, but the lower third of the painting is unfinished and contains a strange Japanese kabuki character. The character was added in ink, not paint. There’s also a question of why French accent marks don’t appear on the inscription “Etude a la bougie,” which means “study by candlelight” in French.

The painting was first purchased by William Goetz, the head of Universal Pictures, in 1948. At that time, the artwork had been authenticated, but Van Gogh’s nephew declared it a fake soon afterwards. Another art expert agreed with the nephew, kicking off a decades-long dispute over the authenticity of the painting. In 2005, a book about Hollywood forger John Decker declared that Decker purposely forged artwork that he attempted to trick Goetz into buying.

While modern technologies can tell us about the materials used in the painting, the analysis can’t resolve the question of who actually painted Study by Candlelight and placed a Japanese kabuki drawing on the canvas. Only Van Gogh knows that information, and he took it with him to the grave.

3 The Missing Ballerina

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Photo credit: Edgar Degas via Wikimedia

No one knows whether Edgar Dega’s painting of a ballerina, Dancer Making Points, was given away, thrown out, or stolen from wealthy heiress Huguette Clark’s apartment in the 1990s. But when it reappeared in the home of Henry Bloch, art collector and co-founder of H&R Block, Clark tried to stop the FBI from investigating by saying that she valued her privacy. Although she never declared the painting to be stolen, a legal battle ensued between Clark and Bloch.

Bloch bought the painting in good faith, so the court battle hinged on whether he could keep it on the basis of “finders keepers.” However, both sides eventually crafted a complex settlement that returned the painting to Clark, whose attorney immediately donated it to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, where Bloch is a trustee. Clark got a hefty tax deduction and the Blochs are allowed to hang the painting in their home until they die, at which time it goes to the museum.

At the time of the settlement, the museum insisted on a sworn statement from Clark’s doctor confirming that she was mentally competent at 102 years old to make the gift. Dr. Henry S. Singman provided that statement.

However, the settlement may be in jeopardy because Clark signed two different wills in 2005, the second of which excluded her family members as inheritors. But Dr. Singman, among others, was named as a beneficiary in the second will. If the family successfully invalidates this second will in court, as they’re attempting to do, then the settlement between Bloch and Clark may also be invalid.

Was the elderly Clark in possession of her senses when she drew up her second will or did someone influence her for monetary gain? If she wasn’t competent in 2005, then she would most likely be deemed incompetent in 2008 when she signed the settlement with the Blochs. It’s a convoluted case with a lot of unanswered questions. Clark died in 2011 at the age of 104.

2 The Connecticut Connection To The Gardner Heist

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Photo credit: Biruitorul

In 1990, the world’s greatest art heist occurred at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. Paintings by Edgar Degas, Rembrandt, and Jan Vermeer were among the almost $500 million worth of masterpieces stolen by two men pretending to be policemen. At the time, FBI agent Paul Cavanagh said, “This is one of those thefts where people actually spent some time researching and took specific things. The job was a professional job.”

In 2010, mobster Robert Guarente’s widow informed police that, several years before his death, her husband had asked Robert Gentile to hide two or three paintings from the Gardner heist. The FBI considered Gentile to be an aging hoodlum. After he failed a polygraph exam about his involvement with the stolen artwork, he connived to take the test again. This time, he admitted to having seen the stolen self-portrait by Rembrandt. The polygraph showed that he was telling the truth. Then he claimed that Guarente’s widow had shown it to him and said it would fund her retirement. Effectively, Gentile shifted the blame back to the woman who had fingered him. But he wouldn’t snitch further.

While Gentile sat in prison, FBI agents searched his property in Connecticut for evidence in the theft. In the basement of Gentile’s house, they found a paper listing the 13 pieces of stolen artwork along with their estimated values on the black market. The paper was stuffed into an old newspaper reporting the theft.

Gentile’s son mentioned to the FBI agents that his father stored valuables in a plastic container under a false floor in his shed, but the FBI found nothing there. Then, Gentile’s son told them of a rainstorm that had flooded the pit underneath the shed, stating that it had destroyed whatever was there and upset his father greatly. When questioned again, Gentile still revealed nothing. In his seventies and in poor health, he only got a sentence of 30 months. He was released by January 2014.

But in March 2013, the FBI’s Boston office publicly announced they were confident that organized crime was responsible for the Gardner heist. The FBI said they knew who stole the paintings and that the artwork had been delivered to Connecticut and Philadelphia. They didn’t give any more details. However, from their sources, some newspapers identified David A. Turner as the person who organized the heist, Robert Guarente as the person who hid the paintings, and Robert Gentile as the fence.

The FBI hoped that the announcement would trigger the public to look for hidden paintings in their garages and attics or get someone to make a call with relevant information that would be picked up on a wiretap. Neither of those things happened. The investigation was soon eclipsed by the more important Boston Marathon bombing.

1 The Other Mona Lisas

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Photo via Wikimedia

Many people believe there’s only one Mona Lisa, the famous one at the Louvre in Paris. However, a second Mona Lisa sits in the Prado Museum in Madrid that may have been painted by da Vinci or one of his students simultaneously with the first. This second painting has a slightly different perspective, which can create a 3–D effect when viewed with the original Mona Lisa.

“This points to the possibility that the two [paintings] together might represent the first stereoscopic image in world history,” researchers wrote in Perception. They also believe that the mountains in the background of the painting were created on a separate canvas that was placed behind the woman. That’s no different than what you would see in a portrait studio today.

Experts disagree on whether the two paintings were created simultaneously and whether this 3–D effect was meant to occur or just happened accidentally.

In another surprising discovery, there’s a third Mona Lisa, an earlier version known as the Isleworth Mona Lisa. She’s believed to be about a decade younger in this painting than the other two. Is this painting the “missing link” between da Vinci’s earlier and later styles of painting, a forgery, or the real deal?

The Isleworth Mona Lisa seems to have been painted when da Vinci was alive, but that doesn’t mean he painted it. One of his students may have created this version. Also, most of da Vinci’s paintings were done on wood. The Isleworth Mona Lisa was painted on canvas. Was da Vinci experimenting with a different technique or was there another creator? If da Vinci did produce this version, which many experts believe, then why did he paint Mona Lisa at least twice?

Among the experts, there’s continuing controversy about these paintingswhich we’ll likely never resolve. But the Isleworth Mona Lisa is in almost perfect condition, which raises the question of whether it’s truly 500 years old. According to at least one expert, it seems unlikely that a painting could have survived so well for so long.



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