6 Lost Works That Finally Turned Up

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While specific events in history have played a major part in the disappearance of many classical works of art, literature and music (the burning of the Library at Alexandria, for instance), sometimes these things are lost to time, poor preservation or deliberate destruction. And sometimes, they show up in unexpected places or under interesting circumstances, like these six.

1. The Royal House of Savoy

Alexandre Dumas, like many authors, was sometimes pressed to write something quickly for money. This seems to be the case with The Royal House of Savoy, a 2500-page story that was serialized in Le Constitutionnel in 1854. It was so good, in fact, that neither the National Library of France nor the Alexandre Dumas Museum had any knowledge of it. Two historians browsing an antique bookstore in Turin, Italy, discovered it in 1998; since then, it has been published again in France, but an English version isn't in the works.

2. Profile of a Young Fiancée

Attributed to an anonymous 19th-century German artist, Profile of a Young Fiancée sold for a surprising $21,850 at a 1998 Christie's New York auction. The amount seemed unbelievably high at the time, but over the next ten years, Nicholas Turner (formerly the Curator of Drawings at the J. Paul Getty Museum) and a team of respected experts determined that the chalk-and-watercolor portrait was probably drawn by Leonardo da Vinci in (or around) 1485—making $21,850 a relative pittance. However, the attribution to da Vinci is not exactly universally accepted, and despite evidence from multi-spectral photographic analysis and the work's inclusion in a 2008 publication titled Leonardo Infinito, many scholars still doubt the portrait was drawn by da Vinci.

3. "War Thoughts at Home"

This poem by Robert Frost is a 35-line story of a woman, set during World War I. Unknown to all but Frederic Melcher, the work remained unpublished for 88 years until its happenstance discovery in 2006. Melcher—a book dealer who was a friend of Frost—donated his collection of the poet's letters and books to the University of Virginia; the items were newly acquired and hadn't even been cataloged when Robert Stilling, a graduate student, heard about them. While skimming through the stacks, Stilling came across a correspondence from 1947 describing an unpublished poem written by Frost. Curious, Stilling began looking through the collection and, within minutes, found "War Thoughts at Home" scrawled inside a copy of North of Boston, an inscription Melcher had deemed "really not important" in his letter to a museum asking for interesting items.

4. Trio in E Flat

Composed by Ludwig van Beethoven for violin, viola and cello in 1792, this untitled trio was partially arranged for piano, violin and cello by the composer around 1800. With only the first movement and 43 measures of the second movement completed, the project was abandoned and subsequently lost for over 100 years. German musicologist Willy Hess published the handwritten manuscript in a scholarly review in 1920, garnering almost no attention from working musicians. The first known performance of the 12-minute piece was on March 1, 2009—almost 182 years after Beethoven's death. For the occasion, the Beethoven Project Trio were lent a 1703 Stradivarius violin and 1739 Guarnerius cello, both made long before Beethoven was born in 1770.

5. In the Hammock

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In May of 1882, Swedish artist Anders Zorn took a trip to England to work; there he met Mary Smith, who would become his favorite model. Smith is the subject of Zorn's In the Hammock, a watercolor depicting a young woman in a white dress resting in a hammock. The painting was thought to be lost or destroyed, and was known only from a photograph until it was discovered in 2006 at a Bonham & Butterfields valuation day (something like an Antiques Roadshow event). The painting was auctioned for just over ₤250,000, well above the predicted sale price.

6. With Custer on the Little Bighorn

custer.jpgWilliam O. Taylor was 21 years old when he left Fort Abraham Lincoln in Dakota Territory; it was 1876, and the men in Troop A of the 7th United States Cavalry Regiment were on their way to an ill-fated battle with a large encampment of Sioux, Lakota, and Northern Cheyenne warriors. Taylor's troop was one of three involved in the initial attack at the Little Bighorn, after which they promptly retreated. Taylor escaped and was discharged in 1877, never having seen another battle. He wrote his story and stored it in a black tin box that, following his death in 1923, was passed along and eventually forgotten. It wasn't found until editor and artifact collector Greg Martin purchased an uncataloged lot of Custer-related items; he assembled the manuscript, wrote a forward and published the book in 1996, 73 years after Taylor's death. It is the only eyewitness account of the Battle of Little Bighorn ever written.

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May 30, 2009 - 8:55pm
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