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13 Strangest Unsolved Mysteries of the Art World

Updated: Jan. 19, 2023

Scratch the surface (literally, in the case of at least one Picasso painting) and you'll see the art world is teeming with mystery, scandal, and intrigue.

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Auction Preview of Leonardo da Vinci Painting Salvator Mundi, New York, USA - 15 Nov 2017
Justin Lane/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Did Leonardo da Vinci really paint Salvator Mundi?

The painting, Salvator Mundi, sold at Christie’s in 2017 for an eye-popping $450 million, in large part because it was attributed to Leonardo da Vinci. But some art experts, including Oxford art historian Matthew Landrus, believe that only 20 percent of the painting was completed by Leonardo himself. Citing artistic details and painting techniques evident in the brushwork, Landrus suspects the rest of the painting was done by Leonardo’s assistant, Bernardino Luini. Bernardino’s work has never fetched more than $654,545.

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Auction of paintings of Adolf Hitler, Nuremberg, Germany - 08 Apr 2018
Friedrich Jurgen/Action Press/Friedrich Jurgen/Action Press/Shutterstock

Are these watercolors really by Adolph Hitler?

Even though Adolph Hitler was rejected from art school, he did quite a bit of painting in his youth. And there are people in the world who’d pay good money (anywhere from $150 to $51,000) to acquire the artistic efforts of der Führer, art being subjective after all. But last month, German prosecutors confiscated 63 paintings signed “A. Hitler” on suspicion of forgery. The jury is out (figuratively) on their authenticity, and verification is apparently extremely challenging.

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Historical Collection 14 Joseph Edgar Boehm (1834-1890) - British Sculptor Astride A Chair with His Head in His Hands 1889

The scandalous death of Joseph Boehm

Sir Joseph Boehm was a prolific Victorian-age sculptor credited with, among other things, creating the British Victoria-head coin. In 1890, at the age of 56, Boehm died suddenly of a stroke in his studio, but he wasn’t alone when he died. He was with Queen Victoria’s sixth daughter, Princess Louise, a sculptor herself. Many believe his death occurred in the midst of a sexual encounter with Louise. Historians, including Lucinda Hawksley, author of Queen Victoria’s Mysterious Daughter: A Biography of Princess Louise, believe Louise and Joseph had been engaged in a longtime affair.

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New York Special Screening and Reception for CBS Films' "At Eternity's Gate" directed by Julian Schnabel, USA - 10 Nov 2018
Marion Curtis/StarPix for CBS Films/Shutterstock

The shooting death of Vincent Van Gogh

Dutch post-impressionist painter Vincent Van Gogh died at age 37 as a result of a gunshot wound at close range, and although it’s long been assumed the emotionally unstable artist committed suicide, there’s always been debate as to whether he was actually shot by a 16-year-old schoolboy. The movie At Eternity’s Gate, starring Willem Dafoe as the tortured artist, argues that it was not suicide, but it also wasn’t murder, but rather an unfortunate accident, a view put forth by others, including forensic expert, Dr. Vincent Di Maio. It’s on par with these 16 strangest unsolved mysteries of all time.

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VARIOUS Marble statue David by Michelangelo in front of Palazzo Vecchio, Piazza della Signoria, Florence, Italy
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What’s the David sculpture holding in his right hand?

Michelangelo Buonarroti sculpted the magnificent David with a sling in his left hand, leading to the presumption Michelangelo envisioned the biblical figure as a lefty. But some experts believe David’s right hand tells the more important story: it is disproportionately oversized, which some speculate is a nod to David’s having been “strong of hand.” And some point to the bulging veins in the hand and surmise David is gripping something tightly, which may or may not be another weapon.

Psst! Speaking of strange mysteries, ever heard of the Mandela Effect?

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Art (Paintings) - various David with head of Goliath (Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio)
Alfredo Dagli Orti/Shutterstock

Why did Caravaggio kill?

The artist, Caravaggio, was known as a troublemaker. For starters, in 1596, he killed another man during a brawl in Rome. No one knows what led to the brawl, although possibilities include money, sports, and romantic jealousy, but what’s even more mysterious is whether Caravaggio spent the rest of his life expressing his guilt through his paintings, some of which art historians believe contain thinly veiled confessions. These include his painting of the murder of St. John the Baptist and his depiction of a despondent Goliath as Caravaggio himself. He wouldn’t have been the only artist to use his work as a secret message board—here are 10 hidden messages in famous paintings.

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Italy Caravaggio, Porto Ercole, Italy
Enzo Russo/AP/Shutterstock

Was Caravaggio the victim of lead poisoning?

But maybe his violent tendencies weren’t Caravaggio’s fault exactly; maybe, just maybe, he was a victim of lead poisoning, which is known to cause changes to the nervous system. This position is supported by scientists who analyzed his bones and determined with 85 percent certainty that Caravaggio had enough lead in his system to make him behave erratically and to ultimately cause his death. If this is true, the lead most likely came from the paints Caravaggio was using, especially since he was notoriously messy with them.

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Historical Collection 111 The Night Watch by Rembrandt Van Rijn Amsterdam circa 1660

Did Rembrandt reveal a murder plot in one of his paintings?

Rembrandt’s painting, The Night Watch, depicts a civilian militia rousing to action in the middle of the night. But some, including the director and artist, Peter Greenaway, believe the painting is “really an exposé of a murder—of one officer by another.” It’s a theory he supports with 20 points—all visual and based on the painting—in his films, Night Watching and Rembrandt J’Accuse. Unlike this one, all 13 of these “unsolved mysteries” can actually be explained by science.

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Art Picasso Hidden Painting, Washington, USA
Evan Vucci/AP/Shutterstock

Who’s the man hidden under Picasso’s The Blue Room?

In 2014, scientists announced they found, hidden beneath the surface of Pablo Picasso’s The Blue Room, a portrait of a man wearing a bow tie, his chin resting on his hand. It’s not all that unusual for an artist to reuse a canvas, but what’s mysterious is the identity of the man. Some speculate he might be the art dealer who hosted Picasso’s first show in 1901 (Ambroise Vollard). What’s known for sure is that it is not a self-portrait.

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VARIOUS Painting titled 'Mona Lisa' by Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) Italian Renaissance polymath: painter, sculptor, architect, musician, mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, geologist, cartographer, botanist, and writer. Dated 15th Century
Universal History Archive/UIG/Shutterstock

Is there another woman hidden beneath the Mona Lisa?

In 2017, French scientist Pascal Cotte revealed he’d discovered the hidden image of a woman beneath the surface of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. It had taken him more than a decade of examination and analysis and has led to speculation about who the woman might be. Cotte has said it’s another woman from Florence, Pacifica Brandano. But not only is the jury out on that, not all experts even agree there’s actually a different woman depicted. Some believe what Cotte discovered is nothing more than a painter’s “first draft” of the finished product.

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Art Heist Mystery, Boston, USA Empty frames from which thieves took "Storm on the Sea of Galilee," left background, by Rembrandt and "The Concert," right foreground, by Vermeer, remain on display at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. The museum says it's doing the best it can with tours and lectures to help visitors appreciate the 13 paintings that were stolen
Josh Reynolds/AP/Shutterstock

Who pulled off the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Heist?

In 1990, 13 works of art worth approximately $500 million were stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston in a robbery perpetrated by two men posing as law enforcement officers. “Despite some promising leads in the past, the… theft…remains unsolved,” the Museum states on its website. In fact, the Museum is offering a $10 million reward for information leading directly to the recovery of the art, plus a separate reward of $100,000 for the return of one specific piece. This isn’t the first time something pricey has gone missing—check out the most expensive things ever stolen.

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Netherlands Art Heist, Rotterdam, Netherlands
Peter Dejong/AP/Peter Dejong/AP/Shutterstock

Where is the missing art from the Rotterdam heist?

In 2012, thieves broke into the Kunsthal Museum in Rotterdam and made off with seven paintings, including works by Picasso, Monet, and Gauguin. Four Romanian men were arrested and convicted of the theft in 2013, but no one knows what happened to the stolen artworks. The mother of one of the thieves confessed to burning the paintings but then retracted her confession. In 2018, someone planted a very realistic looking Picasso-esque painting beneath a rock in a forest in Romania, but it was discovered to be fake. The paintings remain missing.

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Banksy graffiti artwork in Port Talbot, Wales, UK - 11 Jan 2019
Ashley Crowden/Shutterstock

Who is Banksy?

The artist, Banksy, has been around since the early 1990s, creating striking and highly recognizable street art in public places. Yet their identity remains a mystery. Who is Banksy? “Over the years several different people have attempted to ‘unmask’ Banksy,” writes Artnet, in its 2016 analysis of ten popular theories, to which street artist Carlo McCormick, contributed his own opinions (could he be Banksy?). Ready for more to chew on? Read on for 14 of the most baffling mysteries about the universe.