7 Unsolved Mysteries of the Art World

By: Melanie Radzicki McManus  | 

"The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist"
"The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist" is considered one of the most important paintings in the Western world. And some wonder if it's Caravaggio's tacit admission of killing a man. Alonso de Mendoza/Wikimedia/Public Domain

For centuries people have wondered who was the model for Leonardo da Vinci's "Mona Lisa" and what was the reason for her smile. And why do her eyes seem to follow you around? Some scientists think that thanks to spatial frequency, the smile changes depending on where you look. And as for the model, some think she was the wife of a wealthy patron or that Leonardo even painted himself in the portrait. But the Mona Lisa is just one of the many mysteries in the art world. Here are seven other notable unsolved art mysteries that might be a little less familiar.

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1. Did Caravaggio 'Confess' to a Crime in a Painting?

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was a master of the Italian Baroque, who was known for his strikingly modern use of light. He was also a hot-tempered artist who often got into brawls. In 1606, he killed a man during a petty squabble, then fled Rome for Malta. It was there, in 1608, that he created the masterpiece "The Beheading of John the Baptist." The painting is the only one he signed. Even more intriguing, he signed his name in the pool of blood spilling from St. John the Baptist's neck.

Caravaggio had fled to Malta and joined the Order of St. John, which served the pope, as the court painter. And he needed the pope's permission to return to Rome. Perhaps his bloody signature indicated he'd be saved through the Order of St. John. Or perhaps it was his admission of guilt for the Rome murder. The signature reads "f. michelang." Some think the "F" was shorthand for "frater" or "brother," since Caravaggio was affiliated with the order. Others think the "F" stood for fecit, a Latin word meaning "did," so the signature is really saying "Michelangelo did it," an ambiguous comment, for sure.

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2. Who Is the 'Girl with a Pearl Earring'?

"Girl with the Pearl Earring"
The "Girl with a Pearl Earring" has inspired a best-selling book and a popular movie, but the model is still unknown.
Crisco/Wikimedia/Public Domain

Around 1665, Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer painted a seductive portrait of a young girl glancing over her shoulder, lips slightly parted. A very large pearl hangs from her ear, while her eyes seem to follow you everywhere. People around the globe have long pondered who this fetching young lady was.

Many say she must have been Vermeer's daughter or mistress. Others posit she wasn't a real person, but rather an intentionally mysterious, timeless figure. Vermeer was a person of intrigue himself. He didn't produce many works of art, for one, and very few biographical documents exist. We do know he was married and had 15 children.

The painting, dubbed the "Mona Lisa of the North," has been part of The Hague's permanent collection since 1903. But it draws record-breaking crowds whenever and wherever it tours around the world.

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3. Where Is Raphael's 'Portrait of a Young Man'?

"Portrait of a Young Man"
Raphael's "Portrait of a Young Man" went missing during World War II and has still not been found. No one knows its exact colors as the only photos taken of it were in black and white.
Algotr/Wikimedia/Public Domain

Seized by the Nazis, "Portrait of a Young Man" is considered one of the most important pieces of art to go missing during World War II. The painting was created around 1513 by Raphael, a famous Italian Renaissance artist, and swiped from Poland's Princes Czartoryski Museum in 1939.

Hans Frank, head of the Nazi General Government in Poland, was the first person to receive the painting, which was intended to be hung in Hitler's planned Führer Museum in Linz. The portrait then traveled to Germany and Austria before ending up back with Frank. When the Allies arrested him in 1945, it was gone.

Rumors occasionally arise that the painting lies with a private collector in another nation, but nothing has ever been confirmed. Today, the Polish government owns the Czartoryski art collection. If the painting is found, it will be hung in the Princes Czartoryski Museum, where its original frame now hangs, empty. The picture is thought to be a self-portrait of Raphael.

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4. Who or What Is Banksy?

Banksy artwork was done on Brick Lane, London
This Banksy artwork was done on Brick Lane, London, in 2004. To this day, no one knows who the artist Banksy is.
Matt Whitby/Wikimedia/Public Domain

Of all the mysteries in the art world, the hidden identity of Banksy may be the most vexing, as Banksy is still alive and creating. Banksy — who some say may be a collection of artists — was first noticed in the early 1990s, creating easily recognizable street art and graffiti. The pieces often carried social or political themes, but some were poignant or humorous. Despite working on highly visible projects over the years, such as the 2010 documentary "Exit Through the Gift Shop" (which received an Academy Award nomination), Banksy has managed to keep their identity hidden.

Most believe Banksy is British; in the one-off awards show "Greatest Britons 2007," Banksy won the Arts category, besting nominees Antony Gormley and Sam Mendes. In what may have been a wink at Banksy's ability to remain anonymous, the artist(s) arranged portable toilets into a Stonehenge formation during England's 2007 Glastonbury Festival.

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5. Was Van Gogh Murdered?

"Self-portrait with Bandaged Ear and Pipe", Van Gogh
"Self-portrait with Bandaged Ear and Pipe" was one of the many self-portraits painted by Vincent Van Gogh. But was he murdered?
Wikimedia/Public Domain

One of the main things people know about Vincent van Gogh is that he cut off his ear. That was likely because the Dutch post-impressionist painter suffered from mental illness, probably severe depression. And while hailed as a genius today, he only sold one painting before he died in 1890 at age 37. The official cause is suicide from a gun shot at close range.

That certainly seems plausible, given his poor mental health. However, no gun was found near his body, and locals reported two teenage boys bullying him shortly before his death. One possibility, put forth in the flicks "Loving Vincent" (2017) and "At Eternity's Gate" (2018), (as well as in the 2011 biography "Van Gogh: The Life") is that René Secrétan, one of the bullies, pulled the trigger. Besides being troubled, Secrétan is said to have owned a gun that frequently misfired, so another possibility is that van Gogh's death was a tragic accident. Secrétan denied any involvement when interviewed in 1957, though he did say he had a pistol van Gogh may have taken. The biographers think van Gogh may have welcomed death and so did not accuse the boys while on his deathbed.

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6. Did Hilter Really Do These Paintings?

"Vienna State Opera House"
"Vienna State Opera House" was painted by Adolf Hitler in 1912. The art school that rejected him thought he'd be better at architecture than painting.
Wikipedia/Public Domain

As a youth, Adolf Hitler just wanted to be a painter. But he was rejected from art school and eventually turned to other pursuits, namely becoming the notorious dictator who engineered the Holocaust. For decades after his death, Hitler's paintings were largely ignored. They weren't considered very good, for one, plus many considered purchasing his artwork immoral. Nevertheless, numerous fakes were produced, many of which weren't even that precise.

Then, in the early 2000s, a niche market for his pieces arose, and prices jumped. There was just one problem: how to identify Hitler's original works. Due to the wealth of inaccurate fakes, experts are often unsure what an authentic Hitler piece really looks like. One of the few recourses is to compare pieces with verified Hitler works in Bavaria's state archive, but there are only a few in there. Germany is now cracking down on the sale of Hitler artwork to help reduce the number of fakes in circulation.

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7. Who Pulled Off the Gardner Heist?

Isabella Steward Gardner museum heist
The frame from the 1633 Rembrandt painting "A Lady and Gentleman in Black" was still on the floor where thieves left it after the Isabella Steward Gardner museum robbery in 1990.
Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

A cool $10 million will be yours if you figure out who stole 13 masterpieces from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. The 1990 burglary is the biggest art theft in history, as the paintings, which included works from Vermeer and Rembrandt, were worth a combined $500 million in 2020. So what happened?

Two men posing as police officers pulled off the heist after handcuffing and gagging the two young security officers on duty, who didn't have any formal training. The thieves then pried the masterpieces from their frames before removing the security camera videos, none of which were in the galleries. Curiously, the robbery lasted a leisurely 90 minutes, far longer than the average three-minute job.

Despite numerous leads over the decades, the artwork hasn't turned up. The blank frames now hang in their original spots, an eerie remembrance of the crime. In addition to the $10 million reward for information that directly leads to the recovery of all 13 items, there's a $100,000 reward for helping recover just one.

Originally Published: Apr 20, 2021

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