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Sleuths called in to help Aberdeen council’s hunt for missing art

More than 1,300 art pieces have gone missing from Aberdeen council's collections. Picture by Jim Irvine/DCT Media.
More than 1,300 art pieces have gone missing from Aberdeen council's collections. Picture by Jim Irvine/DCT Media.

A team of art-hunting sleuths are to be drafted in to aid the search for Aberdeen’s missing artworks.

The pieces absent from the city’s vaults are thought to be worth £200,000.

A single painting, Spring In The Trossachs by Joseph Farquharson, is thought to be worth 10% of the value of the lost loot.

Now, the council has launched a funding bid to cover the cost of a duo of documentation assistants to track down the missing art.

It is expected to cost around £71,000 for each of the two years they’ll chip away at the backlog.

They will hope to have fully audited the 1,330-item list of misplaced and stolen art pieces by May 2024.

Without them, it was feared it could take seven years to get through the work.

City chiefs previously refused to estimate the worth of the pieces that they are unable to account for.

The missing Farquharson is last thought to have been seen in 1925 and was valued at £20,000 around five years ago.

Freedom of information requests forced the council to reveal 1,577 items from its vast collections were unaccounted for.

Council audit already uncovering some of Aberdeen’s missing art

After an internal audit, around 16% of those have been traced – meaning the missing total stands at 1,330.

It is said to be worth £195,443.

There are 150,000 recorded lots in the city’s £198m collection, though some of those listings relate to multiple items.

As of this month, 92 pieces have been logged as stolen, while archivists are yet to confirm the location of 525 other artworks.

Their location is classed as “to be confirmed” in a report pulled together by chief city growth officer, Richard Sweetnam.

In 1989, 76 objects – most made from silver and ivory – were stolen from the city’s collections.

Grampian Police investigated the haul, though it is now accepted that it is “unlikely” remaining stolen goods will be recovered.

City curators do however still trawl auction catalogues where they may be resold, in vain hope.

Aberdeen council chief: Missing items ‘inevitable’ in large art collections

Mr Sweetnam told councillors on the audit committee: “In such a large collection, inevitably items do go missing.

“It is an unfortunate fact of the sector, but nearly inevitable, that records over time become disassociated with the objects they relate to.

“This is not unique to Aberdeen, our gallery and museums.

“The systems we have today are robust and in line with Museums Galleries Scotland.”

The removal of all exhibits from Aberdeen Art Gallery was the first time 385 items were found to be missing. Picture by Kath Flannery/DCT Media.
The removal of all exhibits from Aberdeen Art Gallery was the first time 385 items were found to be missing. Picture by Kath Flannery/DCT Media.

The accreditation body intervened in the conversation around Aberdeen’s missing art after The P&J reported the news last week.

A spokesman actually hailed the council for being able to identify what had gone astray.

“The fact that a museum is able to identify discrepancies in their object records indicates that their object records are usable and up-to-date, and they have been diligent in undertaking inventory work and questioning historic assumptions.

“It is a sign that their collection records are being appropriately managed now and that they are serving their purpose of object identification and organisational accountability,” he added.

More of Aberdeen’s missing art could be found while unpacking ‘treasure hub’

It is hoped many items misplaced or miscatalogued could be tracked down this year.

Officers are targeting pieces lost during the decant from the art gallery before its recent £34.6 million refurbishment.

Mr Sweetnam said the recent upheaval had helped flag administrative errors in records – a situation he claimed was unique due to recent investment in Aberdeen.

Around 123,000 objects have been shifted in the last nine years, as part of two mass moves in the last decade, because of that revamp and the creation of the new £6m storage facility- the Treasure Hub – in Northfield.

In January 2020, 385 items were logged as missing in a single day.

There are hopes hundreds of missing artworks could be found in the Aberdeen Treasure Hub in Northfield.
There are hopes hundreds of missing artworks could be found in the Aberdeen Treasure Hub in Northfield.

A third is underway, taking more of the city’s collection to the treasure hub from the previous store in Kittybrewster.

And approximately 240 of those items whose whereabouts are yet to be confirmed are because of administrative errors during that shift.

Those 713 historically lost items – those listed missing before records were digitised – could prove more difficult to locate as nine in ten have not been photographed.

Councillors ‘reassured’ by the answers from top brass

Despite those challenges, audit convener Alex Nicoll said he had been reassured by the in-depth briefing from council staff.

The former police officer added: “I think there is considerable, understandable public interest.

“We are all rightly proud of what the city has done and we are rightly proud of the collections that exist for the benefit of the good folk of Aberdeen first and foremost.”

Councillors will be updated on how the search is progressing by the end of the year.

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