The Greatest Art Heist
By William Clague
In June 1940 the French Army was unexpectedly defeated. It should not have happened. They had better tanks than the Nazis at that point, and more of them, and brave soldiers, and they were defending their homeland, yet something went terribly wrong. The Nazis employed an unexpected tactic, their highly mechanized units sped across northern France and turned up in unexpected places so fast that the French were demoralized.
The military defeat gave the Nazis an unprecedented opportunity to loot the greatest storehouses of art in the world. They took full advantage of that opportunity. Both Hitler and Goering were art lovers. The Fuhrer was himself an artist[i]. He planned a monumental museum in his home town of Linz, Austria, and was anxious to acquire the best, according to his taste, for that project. Goering had an art collection already and spared no effort to expand it.
The Nazis assigned the task of gathering the art works of the conquered nation simultaneously to three separate agencies in their government. There was the Kunstschutz, operating under the Wehrmacht (army), the German Embassy in Paris, and the [ii] supposedly controlled by Alfred Rosenberg, the Nazi’s ideologue, but ultimately co-opted by Goering. These three organizations competed so zealously that on occasion they seized works from each other. In addition several puppet French organizations joined the fray, and individual officers, bureaucrats and soldiers, as well as citizens and organizations of both the victor and the vanquished were slopping at the common trough.
With all this wholesale grabbing and hauling, yet by the time Paris was liberated in August 1944, only one-third of the country’s art works had been looted, but much of that lost has never been recovered. The confiscators were stealing the soul of France. A nations cultural materials, paintings, antiques, documents, artifacts and relics, and all such things define its very identity and being. The Nazis wanted to deprive France of its personality and psyche.
While the war was winding down, the Allies, including the French, commenced searching for what had been lost. They were assisted in large measure by the German bureaucratic penchant for meticulous record keeping. However in the frenzy of seizures, shipments, jurisdictional disputes, and wheeling and dealings there were many things that vanished without five carbon copies being filed in the appropriate offices. In the years following the war the work of would be tracers was thwarted by the fact that the French government classified much of the information as secret! It does indeed appear that they had much to hide, for many French citizens profited handsomely from the spin-offs of the confiscations.
Confiscated art was collected at the Jeu de Paume where decisions were made as to what would be sent to Germany, which would be Goering’s and what for Hitler. The storehouse for the proposed Linz Museum contained more then eight thousand items by 1944. “Decadent” art, which included anything modern or abstract was rejected, and was then sold, or traded for desired pieces. Some rejected art was sold in Paris galleries, much of it was sold in Switzerland. The art market was brisk in Paris during the war years, dealing in the rejected confiscated pieces. Parisians had money, and nothing to spend it on. Consumer goods were scarce or non-existent, and since people had little faith in the currency, they invested in art. Swiss collectors and dealers profited handsomely from the Nazi’s business, as did the Swiss generally from the conflict raging around them.
Goering made many visits to the Jeu de Paume, where the helpful staff
of sixty French and German experts and assistants would set aside for
him those items in which he had indicated an interest. The fiction
was that the Reichsmarchall was buying the art, but he never paid a
cent. Art transferred to Germany often went in heated passenger
cars. The Nazis generally took good care of their loot.
Any destruction was at the hands of individual soldiers, or from
The Nazis especially preyed upon the collections of wealthy Jews. Their valuable collections were considered abandoned property when their owners fled. One confiscated collection was that of the prominent art dealer and collector, Paul Rosenberg. On August 27, 1944 Paul’s son, Alexandre was an officer in the French Second Armored Division, which was entering the southern suburbs of Paris. He received an order to intercept a train heading east out of Paris. When Alexander stopped the train, and the French popped the locks on the goods vans to see what was so important that the Nazis had to get it out of town, they found stolen art, including many of the looted pieces of Alexandre’s father’s collection. After four years of carrying off stolen art, the Nazis were using the last few hours they had in Paris to haul away still more.
The victorious allies began the task of finding the looted art immediately as their armies advanced. Some collections were recovered virtually intact. The French Ministry of Culture says that 61,000 works have been returned to France, and 45,000 of those returned to their owners. Those not returned are still in French government custody. The government does not claim to own them, they are just holding them. Some important pieces have never been found. Things keep turning up, not only French, but looted and confiscated art of others as well.
. While writing this article our attention was called a New York Times article of November 15, 2002 reporting that the Austrian police had seized, at the request of an organization representing Vienna’s Jews, a painting by Egon Schiele, Wayside Shrine, taken from the collection of Dr. Heinrich Rieger, a Jewish dentist who most likely accepted it in payment for some dental work for Schiele. The painting was to have been sold at Vienna’s Dorotheum auction house on November 27.
Pieces turn up at prominent auction houses in the United States as well. Frequently the provenance stated in sale catalogs tells the collection from which it was taken, sometimes the chain just has missing links. Auction houses sometimes list the taking by the Nazis as part of the provenance. There are probably hundreds of looted works in the possession of knowing holders who are just lying low waiting for a chance to cash in. Auction houses are cooperative in that effort. When Alexandre Rosenberg’s widow attempted to claim a work offered for sale by a Hamburg auction house, she was told that both the painting, Degas’ Portrait of Gabrielle Diot and the consignor had vanished. It will turn up again someday, and the holder will cash in.
Looted items that turn up in Switzerland present a special difficulty. In most legal systems, no title can be acquired from or through a thief. No right to possession can be passed on the subsequent transferees by one who has no right to transfer. Under Swiss law, there is a five-year statute of limitations on recoveries, and of course that was expired, or nearly so by the end of the war. Then, the present holder, if a purchaser in good faith, gets a good title, and the true owner must reimburse the holder to get his own property back. It would be hard to devise a better system to assist thieves, fences and unscrupulous dealers. Just cool it for five years, then sell, and the most you can loose is your outlay.
Art pieces that were recovered by the Soviet army went to Russia, and the present Russian government has since the end of the Soviet era, disclosed that they have many things previously thought lost. The story of loss and recovery will go on forever.
[i] Hitler’s drawings are competently done, precise renderings. He preferred to sell them to Jewish dealers, because they gave him better prices.