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What should we do about art stolen during WWII?

I’ve always pretty much thought that every effort should be made to return art stolen from Jews and citizens of countries invaded during World War II. The Nazi art theft is perhaps one of the biggest unresolved issues from that war. There’s a certain irony to the whole thing when you think about it. Many of the people and institutions who are in possession of these works were on the losing side. Generally, it is to the victor go the spoils. But, in this case those who were in collusion with the defeated seem to be the ones enjoying the spoils.

picture showing the scale of Nazi art theftIt’s no secret that during World War II over 20% of Europe’s art was looted by the Nazis. This photo shows the scale of the Nazi art theft, particularly when you consider this was only one of the many caches of art discovered after the war was over. While much of the theft was done by German military units, Jewish art dealers in occupied areas aided the effort. To protect their own lives and that of their families, art dealers worked directly with the Nazis on cataloging, archiving and even obtaining these works.

Cache of Looted Art Surfaces

In recent days, the German government went public about the confiscation of over 1,400 artworks. The confiscation happened over 18 months ago. The cache included works by Marc Chagall, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso. What has members of the Jewish community and at least one family, actively trying to retrieve their family’s lost art, angry is that the German government waited so long to go public. Not only has the delay made survivors and their families angry, it would appear that the time was not used to determine if any of the works were part of the widespread Nazi art theft which occurred during the war.

Can you just imagine the shock of seeing a painting your family has been searching for for years, flash across your television screen? Imagine how it must have felt to realize the art was discovered over 18 months before and yet no one has contacted you about recovering your family’s painting. For one German family and their attorney, that was exactly what happened.

But, for a case of tax evasion, the pieces may have continued to remain hidden from the world. Hildebrand Gurlitt was one of those Jewish art dealers working for the Nazis. He worked with the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg Taskforce (EER), a branch of the Nazi government actually assigned to accumulate items of cultural value under the direction of Josef Goebbels. It is believed that agency accumulated over 20,000 art objects. During the war, Gurlitt helped to catalog works obtained by the EER and continued to be an art trader. The cache of art was only discovered after the man’s son was investigated for possible tax evasion after being caught with a large amount of cash during a trip into Switzerland.

The Nazis Kept Track of Everything

The Monuments Men Foundation has been trying to recover artifacts from World War II since shortly after the war ended. With the 2012 discovery of two bound albums turned in to the National Archives by the families of American soldiers, who took them as ‘war souvenirs’, there are now 41 of these books in our National archives. These albums contain detailed records, including sources and photos of documenting the Nazi art theft. The obvious assumption is that any work identified in those, and other albums that may remain at large, were not legally obtained by the Nazis.

Unfortunately, claiming ownership of pieces, even those known to have been part of the Nazi art theft is a difficult and painful process. One also has to assume that survivors and their families are telling the truth. Just because they can produce purchase papers or even a photograph of the piece in their home doesn’t mean it was stolen from them or purchased for pennies on the dollar by art dealers like Gurlitt who were working for the Nazis.

But, How to Prove Ownership 70+ Years Later?

What muddies the waters of who owned what are those works that were sold in the years leading up to the war and during the war. Many families, but Jewish families in particular, were often forced to sell their valuables before they would be resettled (taken to concentration camps). The art dealers grossly took advantage of these families procuring the art for a fraction of its true value.

Further complications on establishing ownership comes from that so-called souvenir hunting by World War II veterans on all sides. Valuable works have been turned in by families from around the world. Unless the pieces were taken from Nazi warehouses and offices, how does one know if they were originally owned by Jewish families?

And, what happens to the person who purchased a piece of art not knowing that it may have been stolen over 70 years ago? Are they supposed to just hand it over to someone with a faded photograph, claiming it was owned by their family?

Return Nazi War Loot to Rightful Owners

In general, I think every effort should be made to return pieces to families who can prove ownership. Museums, governments and financial institutions who, when presented with valid claims, should have to return the spoils of war. Families like the family of Baron Mor Lipot Herzog shouldn’t be forced to file lawsuits to compel the Hungary government to return over 64 million pounds worth of paintings stolen from their family. Why does the world allow this? If there needs to be a new series of Nuremberg trials, then so be it.

Orphan Works Part of Nazi Art Theft

The problem becomes what, then, to do with the thousands of pieces, many of which were quietly absorbed into museums from France to Russia, where there is no family trying to reclaim the works or the family members died before their claims could be resolved? Does the world just let those museums keep what many of them know is Nazi war loot? One fairly large group of works made their way to the Hermitage. They don’t put them on display but have generously photographed many of the works and share them online. Seems like they’ve been stolen from the world twice – once by the Nazis and another time by the curators who keep them from public view.

The Garden by Claude MonetAfter this latest revelation from the German government and working with one of the works of “art from private collections that were temporarily placed in German museums and after 1945 taken to the Soviet Union”, including Monet’s The Garden, I’ve been thinking that what everyone’s been doing about the remaining un-returned spoils of war is obviously not working.

A New Idea for Orphaned Works

Perhaps it is time to create the “Fuhremueseum” Hitler had envisioned – obviously, it would need a different name than the one Hitler hoped to use. Take the monies from the financial institutions that are known to be war plunder and use it to build a grand art museum, perhaps even in Germany, since so many of the works in question were taken from families living there. Fill it with those works known to be part of the Nazi art theft. Create a museum where the world can once again enjoy the art that is hidden away in vaults, museum storerooms, basements and attics. Let them serve as both a source of enjoyment for the world as well as a reminder of the evil that men can do when no one stops them.

Many countries have museums dedicated to individual artists from their country. Why not move some of the works there? Giving the works to places like the Marc Chagall Museum in Belarus, the Matisse Museum in Le Cateau-Cambresis (established by Matisse himself) and the Museu Picasso in Barcelona (the first Picasso museum in the world and the only one established during his lifetime) would allow the works to be shared without allowing those who may have been complicit in their theft to continue to possess them.

Sure, I know, I’m an unrealistic dreamer. There’s billions of dollars at stake and no museum is going to willingly give up pieces of their collection, even if they never put them on public display. Even if historical records make it clear the works are part of the Nazi regime’s loot, it’s unlikely they would willingly give them up to another museum. But, when so many of the works are hidden from public view because the museums know they are in fact Nazi plunder, why not allow them to be placed in the hands of someone who will let the world enjoy them?

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One Response to "What should we do about art stolen during WWII?"

  1. Phillipe says:

    Oh how naïve you Americans are. Who do you think gave the Hungarians those paintings?

    Every museum in the world possesses more items than they could ever put on display. Should they be forced to give them away as well?

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