Where and when, we wonder, will the spectacular haul of paintings that were stolen from Rotterdam's Kunsthal Museum last month be seen again? In fact, will the dazzling collection – a Picasso, Matisse, Gauguin, Lucian Freud and two Monets among them – ever resurface, or are these works destined to gather dust in vaults, lost to all but the very few in the art-collecting underworld?
For as long as there has been art, there has been lost art. While some of our most precious artworks have been stolen, others have been lost, or they have been destroyed in some way, whether by war, by fire or the artist's own hand.
In an effort to document and present these "disappeared" masterpieces, the art historian Céline Delavaux has written The Impossible Museum: The Best Art You'll Never See.
The book brings together a priceless collection of works that can no longer be exhibited in a traditional gallery space. "The history of art is full of ghosts," she writes, adding that, while there may be nowhere we can go to see these lost gems, it would be a shame never to see them at all. Her catalogue takes us through the centuries, from the time when bronze sculptures were melted down in Ancient Greece in order to make weaponry to the shocking moment when the ancient Bamiyan Buddhas were blown up by the Taliban in 2001.
The Tate Gallery, meanwhile, began curating a website which resembles a virtual warehouse of "disappeared" art earlier this year. The year-long project, similar in spirit to Delavaux's endeavour, is an immersive, online exhibition that tells the stories of artworks "destroyed, stolen, discarded, rejected, erased, [or those that are classified as] ephemera".
Jennifer Mundy, curator of the Tate's Gallery of Lost Art, says the canon is not just defined by what is in it, but also by what is missing. "Art history tends to be the history of what has survived. But loss has shaped our sense of art's history in ways that we are often not aware of."
The site corroborates this view, stating that "some of the most significant artworks of the last hundred years have been lost and can no longer be seen". It explores the sometimes extraordinary, sometimes banal, circumstances behind the loss of artworks by Marcel Duchamp, Joan Miro, Willem de Kooning, Rachel Whiteread and Tracey Emin, to name a few. Ironically, what keeps the memory of such works alive is the mythology around their disappearance.
In 1953, Robert Rauschenberg created a work by erasing a drawing by Willem de Kooning. Jake and Dinos Chapman, decades later, bought early 19th-century Goya etchings and then drew over them. Even more flamboyantly, the Swiss artist Jean Tinguely created machines that were programmed to self-destruct after 28 minutes of manic activity, in the 1960s. There is the wear-and-tear that renders antiquities too delicate to be shown in public, and the organic transience to works such as Damien Hirst's The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living. Due to deterioration, the tiger shark soaked in formaldehyde had to be replaced with a new specimen in 2006.
Stolen works lead to loss of a more sensational kind: we all hear about it when a painting by Cézanne, Vermeer and even a two-ton sculpture by Henry Moore (pinched from countryside near London) goes missing. Delavaux disinters such "lost" objects and presents them to us under one – virtual – roof.
Céline Delavaux's 'The Impossible Museum: the Best Art You'll Never See' is published by Prestel; Tate's Gallery of Lost Art is online until July 2013
Now you see them, now you don't
Leda and the Swan: Leonardo da Vinci
The renaissance master is said to have painted two different versions of 'Leda and the Swan', which were inspired by Ovid's 'Metamorphoses', but art historians only have copies of the original works, which have been lost for several centuries. Only some preparatory studies remain. No one knows where the paintings went. A witness reported that the original could be found in the Palace of Fontainebleau in 1625. The painting would thus have belonged to King Francis I, who also owned the 'Mona Lisa' at one point. It was listed in the palace inventories in 1692. Then it simply vanished.
Las Meninas: Diego Velazquez
This painting, as we see it today at the Prado Museum in Madrid, is covering up another version underneath. When the canvas was X-rayed, the presence of significant modifications, made by Velazquez, were revealed. The Royal family features in its entirety, including the Infanta Margarita and her ladies-in-waiting (the 'meninas') as well as the King and Queen in a mirror reflection, but the original painting appears to have been more 'dynastic' in nature, for public consumption rather than the rather more intimate portrait that it became second time around. Velazquez features in the superimposed painting, while a young woman (perhaps the king's eldest daughter, Infanta Maria Teresa) had been there in his place.
Philosophy: Gustav Klimt
In 1894, Klimt painted a set of works that included 'Philosophy' for a decorative mural in the University of Vienna. One among the series, called 'Medicine', was censored by its commissioners, who demanded that Klimt cover up a nude figure. He refused to do so, and returned the advance. 'Philosophy' was subsequently acquired by a private collector. Then, during the Second World War, it was confiscated by the Austrian state and, in 1945, Nazi soldiers set fire to the building in which it was stored.
The Saatchi Collection
On 24 May 2004, a fire devastated a warehouse in Leyton, East London. The building belonged to an art storage company, Momart, whose clients included Charles Saatchi, Tate Britain, Buckingham Palace and the National Gallery. It took two days to put out the fire and in that time, a number of well-known YBA works owned by Saatchi were destroyed, including 'Hell' by the Chapman brothers (made up of tiny Nazi figures), several of Damien Hirst's drawings, and Tracey Emin's tent with 200 names written on it (everyone the artist had slept with between 1963 and 1995).
Akrotiri frescoes, Santorini
In 1870, during the mining of pumice stone from the island of Santorini, the ruins of Akrotiri were discovered. An entire city was revealed, including frescos created more than three-and-a-half thousand years earlier. They were found in a surprisingly preserved state, and provided insight into a civilisation that vanished around 1500BC. At the time of their finding, they were named 'prehistoric Pompeii' – they had been preserved by volcanic ash after an eruption.
Springs Winter (Or Winter in Springs): Jackson Pollock
On 18 November 2005, thieves entered the Everhart Museum in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and left with a painting by Pollock and a silkscreen by Andy Warhol. The FBI is still looking for them. The Pollock painting had been on loan from a collector who wanted to share this work with the public. It was not insured and the museum's CCTV cameras were not working. It was valued at around $10m.