The 15 Biggest Art Historical Discoveries of 2018

Julia Fiore and Benjamin Sutton
Dec 26, 2018 1:00PM

In 2018, we learned more about the art practices of the earliest humans and recovered (or reattributed) artworks by relatively recent humans, like Willem de Kooning and Robert Motherwell. Scientists and archaeologists also shed light on ancient cultures through art, from centuries-old Egyptian statues to Indonesian cave paintings. Our understanding of the art of the past—and its relationship to the present—became much more nuanced thanks to the 15 dramatic discoveries outlined below.

From pottery to pyramid construction, discoveries in Egypt shed light on ancient life.

The tomb of high priest Wahtye at the Saqqara necropolis in Egypt. Photo by Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images

It was a big year for archaeological discoveries in Egypt, particularly as the country seeks to ramp up interest in its billion-dollar showpiece museum, the Grand Egyptian Museum, which is now slated to fully open in 2020 (only eight years later than originally planned). A range of ancient artifacts, structures, and complexes were discovered this year, including a pottery studio from between 2613 and 2494 B.C.E., a tomb full of beetles and mummified cats, and most recently, the ornate tomb of high priest Wahtye, who served during the reign of pharaoh Neferirkare (c. 2446–2438 B.C.E.).

Among the most significant Egyptian archaeological discoveries of 2018 was one that may help shed light on how the pyramids were built: Scientists working in an ancient Egyptian quarry came across a surprisingly steep ramp that dates from the period when the Great Pyramid of Giza was erected. Another major find occurred in August, when archaeologists in the historic city of Luxor discovered a sphinx statue, fueling speculation that it may be the long-rumored companion sphinx to the iconic Great Sphinx of Giza. And perhaps most ominously, in July archaeologists ignored speculation about a curse and cracked open a mysterious, 2,000-year-old sarcophagus made of black granite to discover its grisly contents: three skeletons soaking in mummy juice.

Discoveries in caves around the world complicated the timeline of early art.

A cave painting of a banteng, believed to be at least 40,000 years old, in a cave in East Kalimantan. Photo © Pindi Setiawan.


Much of what we thought we knew about the oldest art on the planet was challenged in 2018. Archaeologists in Spain dated cave paintings that they believe to be made at least 65,000 years ago, suggesting that they had not been created by homo sapiens—who are only believed to have arrived in Europe about 40,000 to 45,000 years ago—but rather by Neanderthals. That possible attribution comes as members of the scientific community have “been working towards arguing for the cognitive capacities of Neanderthals,” Gibraltar Museum paleoanthropologist Clive Finlayson told Smithsonian Magazine.

Though homo sapiens were only just reaching Europe 40,000 years ago, figurative cave paintings in Borneo were recently dated to that time. Though previously thought to be merely 10,000 years old, new dating revealed in November would make the paintings the world’s oldest figurative art. And in September, a report published in Nature suggested that the world’s oldest drawing had been discovered in a cave in South Africa. The angular ocher scrawl on a piece of silcrete is presumed to be 73,000 years old.

Works by Willem de Kooning turned up in the strangest places.

In July, Manhattan art dealer David Killen revealed that the contents of a New Jersey storage locker he’d purchased in 2017 for $15,000 included what appeared to be six works by Willem de Kooning. Though they are unsigned—and the Willem de Kooning Foundation doesn’t authenticate works—he called in an art conservator who had been a studio assistant to de Kooning to sign off on them. Killen’s bet paid off when he sold the works for a total of $2.5 million this fall.

And the mystery surrounding another de Kooning got a tiny bit less mysterious (depending on your interpretation) after a family photograph surfaced that put Rita and Jerry Atler in the vicinity of the University of Arizona Museum of Art in 1985 the day before a man and a woman distracted the museum’s only guard, cut de Kooning’s Woman-Ochre (1954–55) from its frame, and disappeared. Who were the Atlers, you ask? Oh, just a couple from New York City that retired to New Mexico and in whose bedroom—following Rita’s death in 2017—Woman-Ochre was found.

Lasers shed light on the expanse of a Maya megalopolis.

Scholars studying the Maya Biosphere Reserve in Guatemala used laser imaging to map an area of more than 800 square miles, revealing a far more complex and interconnected society than previously known. The imaging technology, known as LiDAR (Light Detection And Ranging), digitally removed the jungle canopy to reveal hundreds of unseen structures, an extensive network of highways connecting urban areas and quarries, and advanced irrigation and terracing systems.

“We’ve had this western conceit that complex civilizations can’t flourish in the tropics, that the tropics are where civilizations go to die,” Tulane University archaeologist Marcello Canuto told National Geographic. “[W]e now have to consider that complex societies may have formed in the tropics and made their way outward from there.”

A stolen Degas turned up on a bus.

Edgar Degas, Les Choristes, 1877. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

In 2009, Les Choristes (1877), a pastel by Edgar Degas in the collection of the Musée d’Orsay, was stolen from a museum in Marseille in the South of France where it was on loan. At the time, police said there had been no signs of a break-in. In February, during a random search, customs officials found the painting in a suitcase in the luggage compartment of a bus stopped at a gas station near Paris. Unsurprisingly, none of the passengers on board copped to owning the €800,000 ($904,000) work. Les Choristes is due to go back on display at the Musée d’Orsay in 2019, when it will be featured in the exhibition “Degas at the Opera,” which will travel to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. the following year.

James Castle drawings discovered in his own castle’s walls.

While working to preserve the Boise, Idaho home of renowned self-taught artist James Castle —which opened to the public as a house museum in April—officials overseeing its restoration found 11 previously unseen drawings by Castle hidden in the walls. A space between two wall boards was found to also contain two books, one marble, socks, drawing implements, and tobacco bags. The 11 works, along with 50 more, were donated to the city of Boise. Castle died in 1977; the house’s next occupant found about 150 of his works in the ceiling in 2010.

A missing Motherwell made its return.

In 1978, the famed New York School painter Robert Motherwell changed storage and moving companies, and while cataloguing the work formerly held by The Santini Moving Company, he realized that dozens of artworks were missing. In July, one of those paintings, an untitled canvas from 1967, was recovered by the FBI. The painting had come to the attention of their Art Crime Team in 2017, when the son of a former Santini worker approached Motherwell’s Dedalus Foundation to have it authenticated. The man gave the work up voluntarily, helping to solve a 40-year mystery.

Caravaggio died for his art, or a sword wound.

Caravaggio, Judith Beheading Holofernes, circa 1598-1599. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

There are plenty of theories about how the notoriously violent Renaissance master Caravaggio died at age 38, and this year two of them got a little more scientific support. In June, new research based on analysis of remains found in Tuscany suggested that lead poisoning from his paints was partly responsible for his early demise. A few months later, close analysis of bones believed to be the remains of Caravaggio pointed to a blood infection brought on by a wound sustained in a sword fight as the thing that finally did him in. It’s a testament to Caravaggio’s hard-living lifestyle that there are this many plausible and scientifically verified explanations for his death.

There’s a lot more to learn about Pompeii, buried under ash for two millennia.

Although archeologists rediscovered Pompeii buried under volcanic ash more than 250 years ago, so far only two-thirds of the ancient Roman city has been excavated. The Great Pompeii Project, an ambitious, European Union–backed preservation campaign, has already made extraordinary finds. A small line of charcoal graffiti etched on a wall in one excavated dwelling will change the history books: the inscription proves that Vesuvius, the volcano that destroyed the city, actually erupted on October 17th, 79 C.E., rather than the August 24th date traditionally cited.

Much of what we know about life in ancient Rome is gleaned from the remarkably preserved frescoes and mosaics dusted off in Pompeii’s excavated villas. Inside a special chamber in one lavish home, researchers unearthed an elaborate shrine, or lararium. Dubbed “the Enchanted Garden,” the shrine is sumptuously decorated with paintings of Roman gods, illusionistic garden scenes, and wild animals. In the bedroom of a nearby villa, the team of archeologists also discovered an erotic fresco showing the mythological story of Leda and the swan. In an adjacent room is a fresco of the fertility god Priapus weighing a phallus.The pair of decorations suggest that the house was likely owned by a prosperous freed slave.

In time for “Year of Rembrandt” celebrations, two works were newly attributed to the Dutch master.

Rembrandt, Portrait of a Young Gentleman, circa 1634. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Dutch Old Masters dealer Jan Six and Dutch Old Master Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–69) have had a boom year. In May, the previously unattributed Portrait of a Young Gentleman (c. 1634), whichSix purchased at auction in 2016 for the relatively paltry sum of $185,000, was confirmed to be an original Rembrandt by experts as well as by X-ray analysis. In September, a second painting, Let the Children Come to Me (1627–8), bought by Six at auction in 2014, was also verified to be an authentic Rembrandt. The dealer said he recognized it based on a background figure who resembles the young artist. Both works will be on view in national exhibitions staged in 2019 in the Netherlands to commemorate the 350th anniversary of the artist’s death.

Major new discoveries brought the myths of ancient Greece to life.

The Siren Vase, circa 480-70 B.C. Photo by cea +, via Flickr.

The hold of ancient Greece on the contemporary imagination steadfastly remains. But despite the many artworks, novels, and Hollywood blockbusters inspired by the glittering empire, it is still shrouded in mystery and myth. Two recent discoveries, however, offer unprecedented insight into the classical world.

The Black Sea Maritime Archaeology Project found the world’s oldest intact shipwreck at the bottom of the Black Sea, where it laid undisturbed for over 2,400 years. The ancient Greek trading vessel has only ever been seen in paintings on ancient Greek pottery, like the British Museum’s “Siren Vase.” Produced during the same period, the vase depicts Odysseus tied to the mast of a similar ship as he struggles to resist the Sirens’ song.

And this past October, the archeologist Elena Korka uncovered the long-lost Trojan city of Tenea, also once considered to be mere legend. In a dig conducted in the small Greek town of Chiliomodi, Korka and her team found a well-preserved, complex network of houses, as well as tombs filled with gold, silver, and other treasures that hint at the very real city’s wealth.

A rare photograph long thought to show Vincent van Gogh is actually of his younger brother Theo.

This image was previously identified as Vincent van Gogh, aged 13, but research now recognizes this image as Theo van Gogh, aged 15. Photo by B. Schwarz, Brussels. Courtesy of the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation).

Theo van Gogh, aged 32. Photo by Woodbury & Page, Amsterdam. Courtesy of the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation).

The celebrated Post-Impressionist Vincent van Gogh’s many self-portraits have rendered his tortured visage instantly recognizable. Nevertheless, a photograph long thought to depict the redheaded icon as a tween has just been identified as being an image of the artist’s beloved younger brother, Theo, at age 15. Working independently, curator Yves Vasseur and researchers at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam realized that the date attributed to the picture—1866—was off; it was actually made in 1873 by a photographer in Brussels, where Theo lived at the time. The finding means that only one confirmed photograph of Van Gogh—taken in the Hague when he was 19—remains.

New Michelangelo bronzes were identified by the figures’ distinctly cut ten-pack abs.

Two bronze statues named Bacchants Riding On Panthers , thought to be by Italian Renaissance master Michelangelo, are displayed at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge on February 2, 2015. Photo by Jack Taylor/AFP/Getty Images.

A master of idealized anatomy, Renaissance god Michelangelo has basically defined the contemporary image of muscled manliness. Yet experts were skeptical about the attribution of two startlingly sexual bronze sculptures sold to private collectors at Sotheby’s in 2002. It took four years of research from a team led by the University of Cambridge to confirm that the works, which feature ripped nude men on panthers, are, in fact, Michelangelo’s. The clues that unlocked the truth? The artist’s particular tendency to give his male figures bulging thighs and calves, and to include the extra, fibrous band of tissue that separates a ten-pack from an eight-pack.

The model for Courbet’s controversial The Origin of the World has finally been identified.

French RealistGustave Courbet’s 1866 painting, provocatively titled The Origin of the World, memorably features a close up of a woman’s genitalia. For decades art historians assumed that the naked model was Courbet’s lover and frequent subject, Joanna Hiffernan. But Hiffernan was a redhead, and the woman in The Origin is decidedly brunette. Now a French scholar has solved the mystery, uncovering correspondence that points to the Parisian ballet dancer Constance Queniaux, the mistress of Ottoman diplomat Halil Şerif Pasha, who commissioned the painting from Courbet for his private erotica collection.

A professor in Italy claimed to have discovered Leonardo da Vinci’s earliest work.

The purported Leonardo da Vinci tile on view in Rome. Courtesy of Press Office Handout/EPA.

It seems that Leonardo da Vinci’s limited oeuvre—previous estimates suggest that only 13 of his paintings survive today—will only continue to grow in the 21st century. The recent attribution of Salvator Mundi to Leonardo led to a record-breaking sale in 2017 and now the Italian historian Ernesto Solari claims to have uncovered the Renaissance maestro’s earliest work, a self-portrait of the artist as the Archangel Gabriel done on tile. Even more intriguing than the accreditation of the work is the frenzy it will inevitably cause at auction.

Julia Fiore
Benjamin Sutton