French go hunting 12,000 lost art works

More than 12,000 works of art and pieces of antique furniture belonging to the French state are missing, believed stolen.

This is not - or not quite - the case of the biggest art theft of all time: it is more a case of bureaucratic laxity, incompetence and the dishonesty of some public officials over a period of more than 60 years.

A commission led by a senior French public auditor believes that 13 per cent of all the paintings, sculptures and pieces of furniture sent out on loan from the state collection since the 1930s have vanished.

In most cases the works of art were lent to ministries, town halls or provincial museums. Of just under 100,000 pieces handed out in this way, 12,500 have been "lost without trace", according to Jean-Pierre Bady of the Cour des Comptes, a watchdog of French public property and finances.

"So long as no one can be personally blamed, the organisations responsible seem to care little for the losses, disastrous though they are," Mr Bady reported. After ignoring the steady leakage over many decades, the Direction des Musées de France decided to try to trace some of the missing works - with some success.

Last Wednesday, the Louvre took delivery of an "important" 17th-century painting by the Italian artist Domenico Zampieri. The Virgin and Child appearing to St Francis of Assisi or St Anthony of Padua was loaned to the municipal museum in Toul in eastern France in 1895. It was moved to the local town hall in 1939 and is believed to have disappeared 30 years later.

The museums service was unaware of its loss until Toul was investigated by Mr Bady's commission last year. Police traced the painting to the home of a property lawyer in the town who said he had bought it in a junk shop for 1,500 francs (£150). Another missing painting was also found hanging in his house.

Losses of antique furniture are especially grave. Of the 9,600 pieces officially on loan, 2,300 can no longer be traced. One ministry alone has lost more than 1,000 pieces of art and furniture, the report complained. The guilty institution is the Ministry of Culture.