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Among the Missing

The Spoils of War: World War II and Its Aftermath: The Loss, Reappearance, and Recovery of Cultural Property

edited by Elizabeth Simpson
Abrams/Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts, 336 pp., $49.50

1.

Spoliation has been the concomitant of war since earliest times. It was standard practice long before

Mighty Caesar, thund’ring from afar,
Seeks on Euphrates Banks the Spoils of War

or Napoleon Bonaparte paraded the horses of San Marco on the Champs de Mars in Paris in 1798.1 It would be difficult, however, to find in the history of armed conflict a conqueror who pursued it as systematically and on such a grandiose scale as Adolf Hitler. Driven by the desire to make his country the greatest cultural center in the world and, at the same time, to purge it and its conquered lands of art that was by his standards degenerate and hence dangerous to the moral health of society, the German dictator brought about an unprecedented displacement of art and cultural property in Europe. His agents forced Western museums to sell selected masterpieces to the Reich and confiscated the collections of Jews and Freemasons and other presumed enemies of National Socialism as his victorious armies in the eastern lands indulged in orgies of looting and burning.

There was nothing adventitious about this—the seizure of Jewish property was intended to humiliate the victims and was a prelude to liquidating them, and the destruction in the Slavic lands was a deliberate expression of contempt for the local culture—and it was not intended to stop when military victory was achieved. Indeed, not only did Hitler plan to demand the return to Germany of everything that had been taken from it as a result of the Versailles Treaty, but Nazi scholars were set to the task of compiling lists of German art objects that had wandered abroad since the year 1500 and would be reclaimed when Germany had attained world mastery.

This is not to say that greed was not at times as important a motivation as ideology. Hitler’s extensive private acquisitions, intended for the museum of his home town of Linz in Austria, encouraged his subordinates Goering, Ribbentrop, Himmler, and Hans Frank to build up their own collections by confiscation and forced sale, and the confusion of war gave many less important people opportunities to enrich themselves by theft. All of this contributed to the general process of dispersal that was described with such masterful detail by Lynn Nicholas in her book The Rape of Europa in 1994.2 By the end of the war thousands of masterpieces were scattered over the continent, far from their former homes, and postwar society was faced with the horrendous task of trying to locate them and, if that was successful (for many of the treasures were lost beyond recall), to restore them to their owners. Fifty years later, that problem is still—given the lack of energy or the open opposition of various governments—far from resolution.

The Spoils of War is a collection of the papers presented at a symposium with that title held at the Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts in January 1995 and attended by scholars, curators, art historians, legal experts, and government officials from more than a dozen nations. Conference papers are not invariably of much interest to non-specialists. If these are an exception, it is because their primary concern is the question of restitution, which has attracted widespread attention and curiosity as a result of the ongoing debate about wartime deposits in Swiss banks and the recent revelations about extensive Russian holdings of art treasures that disappeared during the war. Most of the papers dealing with this theme are, indeed, charged with an emotional intensity, not to say acerbity, that is usually alien to academic style.

This is not to diminish the importance of the historical contributions to the conference, which include an excellent brief overview of the evolution of Nazi cultural policy by Lynn Nicholas and an article on German laws and directives that accompanied it by Jonathan Petropoulos, who makes the important point that all Nazi acquisitions found their legal justification in the concept of the “Prerogative of the Führer” of June 1938, which stated that “[the Führer] has authority over those objects which are given over to become property of the Reich.” This vague formulation, Petropoulos remarks, gave Nazi looters in the occupied territories all the authority they needed without bridling their private predatory instincts.

The historical papers include accounts of the losses suffered in countries including Austria, Hungary, Belgium, and the Netherlands (where the looting of the Franz Koenigs collection of masterpiece drawings by agents of Hitler’s Linz project provides an excellent illustration of the ways in which the Nazis were able to compel the sale of objects they wanted), and in the former component states of the Soviet Union, particularly Ukraine, where museums and churches suffered devastating losses, such as the remarkable frescoes from the Cathedral of St. Sophia.

Among these contributions, Jan P. Pruszyå«nski’s on Poland deserves special attention, underlining as it does the ideological nature of Nazi policy in that country. In sharp contrast to the German attitude toward Western countries, Hitler’s policy toward Poland was based on the desire to eliminate the Polish population and its culture. He was reported to have said, “Be merciless! Do not spare Poland!”; and his governor general, Hans Frank, echoed his master’s intention by declaring, “Our main task is to settle in the Eastern territory an exclusively German population.”

The Germans were nothing if not systematic, and, in addition to their brutal attacks upon local populations, between December 1939 and March 1940 they plundered forty-three churches of historical importance, seventy-four palaces, ninety-six manors, and a hundred libraries. Pruszyå«nski writes that, apart from the theft of such treasures as Veit Stoss’s Saint Anne and Lorenzo di Credi’s Madonna and Child with Angels, “the most bitter loss is irreparable: libraries and archives plundered and burned for no military reason.” He cites as an instance the Krasinski Library in Warsaw, which was crammed with rare and precious books and manuscripts in five stories of underground magazines. To burn such a building, he comments, “was not easy, but the brave German Brandkommando managed to do it!”

The problem of restitution has been complicated by the wantonness of the looting process and by many other factors. When the Western armies invaded Europe they established collecting points for the stolen art that they tracked down, which facilitated their return to their owners, but many important treasures eluded this process and simply disappeared, surfacing years later and then posing special problems. A case in point, discussed in this collection, is that of the treasures of the Quedlinburg church in Germany, which dated back to the time of Henry I of Saxony. These were stolen by a lieutenant of the American 87th Field Artillery named Joe Tom Meador and mailed in small boxes to his home in Texas. Their whereabouts became known only after Meador’s death in 1980 when his brother and sister became interested in selling them. The problem of seeking to reclaim them by legal means promised to be so difficult that the German Cultural Foundation of the States and the West German Ministry of the Interior found it expedient simply to purchase them from the Meador family, who profited richly from the settlement.3

The resolution of the Quedlinburg matter was simple in comparison with that posed by the disclosure in an article by Konstantin Akinsha and Grigorii Kozlov in the April 1991 issue of ARTnews of the existence of secret art repositories in the former Soviet Union. These, as it turned out, included many German properties that had been presumed to be lost, among them the Eberswalde gold treasure, dating from the ninth century BC, seventeen hundred drawings from the Bremen Kunsthalle, drawings from the Koenigs collection acquired by the Nazis in 1941, parts of the collections of Wilhelm von Humboldt, and two Gutenberg Bibles. Also among the sequestered properties—and this attracted wider public attention—were the so-called treasures of Priam, found by the archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann on the site of ancient Troy and, as Klaus Goldman writes in his informative contribution to the Bard conference, given in 1881 to the Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte in Berlin “as a gift to the German people, forever to be shown in the German capital.”4

Since there has been no doubt about the legal ownership of the Trojan treasures since the late nineteenth century, the government had a strong case for immediate restitution, based on international law, including the Hague Convention of 1907 and special Russo-German treaties and conventions concerning cultural properties signed in 1990 and 1992. The Russian Federation, however, took, and still takes, the position that the disposition of the treasures must be considered with respect to the fate of other cultural property affected by the war; and the government noted that there was a widespread popular feeling in Russia that all relocated cultural property, including the Trojan gold, belonged to Russia by virtue of its victory over Nazi Germany. “This belief,” it has stated, “is rooted in the emotional perception of the past war, which brought innumerable sufferings to millions of people.”

This is not a new position. It was articulated by the Soviet members of the Allied Commission on Reparations in 1945 and briefly commended itself to some high-ranking American officials and some eminent museum directors in the US before it became apparent that public opinion would not tolerate a policy that seemed, in principle, indistinguishable from that followed by the Nazis.5 Such considerations were of no concern to the Soviets and, although in March 1955 they returned to East German museums some of the collections that had come into their possession (the treasures of the Grünes Gewölbe, the princely collection of precious objects in Dresden, for example), they felt no obligation to return others taken during or after the war. The fall of the Soviet Union has not changed this attitude. Indeed, the Bard Conference was attacked by Pravda as an example of “‘Cold’ War behind Museum Blinds.”

Political appeals to the memory of the Great Patriotic War may not be enough to prevent a change in this stubborn stand, for reason and law are clearly on the other side. In an eloquent paper in the Bard volume, the German critic Hagen Graf Lamsdorff, head of the foreign affairs department of the German Federal Republic’s press and information office, writes:

The return of cultural property is not a matter of compensation and reparations, trophies or spoils of war, or the difference between aggression in contravention of international law and legitimate defense. Rather, it concerns a quite different dimension: respect for an inalienable cultural identity which cannot be taken away by anyone even in war and defeat, not even by the victors. It is protected by international law, as it forms part of the dignity of individuals and peoples and enjoys great respect in all civilized nations.

Even more forcefully, Patricia Kennedy Grimsted of Harvard’s Russian Research Center, addressing herself to the question of the millions of personal and official files from all over Europe that were captured by the Soviet forces and taken to the USSR (and to the vexed question of the five hundred Smolensk Communist Party files which she says are “held hostage by the US Congress”), writes:

The long-term political and historiographical consequences of displaced archives may be much greater than that of ancient Trojan gold, Dürer drawings, and Cézanne canvases…. Lost letters of Eduard Beneš, Wladislaw Sikorski, or Léon Blum, displaced medieval Bremen charters, Masonic protocols from the eighteenth century, papers of Ferdinand Lassalle and Friedrich Adler, or Trans-Dniestrian police reports from 1918 and 1942 are no less important to the historical record than the long-suppressed Auschwitz construction files and long-hidden files from the Reich Foreign Office. And who in Moscow will ever read, or let alone appreciate, the long-lost records of the Dutch feminist movement which still remain sequestered there?

2.

Hector Feliciano’s The Lost Museum has some of the elements of a good detective story, for in large part it is the story of attempts to search out the beneficiaries of crimes committed half a century ago and to do final justice to their victims. The author, a writer who lives in Paris, became interested in Nazi looting of art in 1989, taking as the focus for his investigation the despoiling of the famous collections of five Jewish families in Paris—the Rothschilds, the Paul Rosenbergs, the Bernheim-Jeunes, the David-Weills, and the Schlosses. It soon became apparent to him that the Nazis alone were not the culprits, but were aided, as he writes in his introduction, “by an intricate network of collaborators, moving companies, neighbors, and house servants who informed them.”

The Paul Rosenberg collection, for example, which at the time of the Nazi invasion was largely concentrated in Rosenberg’s house at Floirac waiting to be picked up and shipped to New York, fell to the Nazis as a result of collaboration between the moving company and two Parisian antique dealers named Yves Perdoux and the Count de Lestang. They promised staff members of the German embassy that they would reveal the location of the Rosenberg collection of nineteenth-century masters in return for 10 percent of its net worth, to be paid for in modern paintings which the Germans held in low esteem but which could be sold profitably in Paris or abroad.

There were many stories like this, and Feliciano’s study of them turned out to be particularly useful later on when he turned his mind to the problem of where the lost masterpieces had gone after their seizure. The immediate destination of most of them was the small museum called the Jeu de Paume, then the headquarters of the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR) and the chief German collecting point for confiscated art, where it was held while Hitler’s aides and Goering’s made their selections before the rest was sent to Germany or re-sold or, in some cases, destroyed. The ERR seems to have been run with less than normal German rigor, and French art dealers and German brokers soon discovered that it was a marvelous place for making profitable deals. All that was needed was an ingratiating manner and good connections.

Thus, Gustav Rochlitz, an art dealer with German citizenship who had a gallery on the rue de Rivoli, became a frequent visitor and was able to arrange eighteen official exchanges, mostly of modern art for classical works. Rochlitz became a confidante of Hermann Goering and in February 1941 arranged the acquisition by the Reichsmarschall of two classical paintings (Portrait of a Man, attributed to Titian, and a still life by the Dutch painter Jan Weenix) in exchange for eleven paintings by nineteenth- and twentieth-century French masters, including an important Degas, a Braque, and a Cézanne, and, from the seized Paul Rosenberg collection, a Corot, three Matisses, and two Picassos. This sort of arrangement, and Rochlitz’s subsequent disposal of the works that he acquired, greatly complicated the postwar task of tracing and restoration.

Ernst Jünger, who spent most of the occupation years in Paris as a German staff officer trying to convince himself on the basis of his connections with socially prominent collaborators that the French were natural friends and allies, tells in his memoirs of being surprised and shocked by the look of hatred on the face of a shopgirl. She probably did not work in an art gallery. Feliciano tells us, in a lively chapter, that the war was a godsend for virtually all the non-Jews in Paris who dealt in art, putting an end to the crisis of the 1930s, when a third of Paris’s galleries had been forced to close their doors. What made the difference, he writes, was

the sudden arrival of large numbers of German buyers with deep pockets. By the end of the Occupation, these Germans had established complex commercial relations with French dealers…. [Hitler, Goering, and the ERR agents] were soon joined by representatives from the Reich’s museums and galleries, by diplomats, civil servants, bankers, Nazi Party dignitaries, and wealthy private citizens, all of whom arrived right behind the Wehrmacht. They profited from the enormously disadvantageous exchange rate imposed upon the French franc by the armistice (twenty francs to each Reichsmark) and from all the commercial and psychological advantages that come with being conquerors. In their wake came the Austrians—the Germans’ new compatriots—the Belgians, and the Dutch, and not far behind them were the Swiss, who for all their vaunted neutrality, were to be found everywhere. Working in conjunction…, they soon succeeded in taking over the coveted collectors’ market. Certain French dealers welcomed them with open arms and assisted them in their task.

Feliciano is almost as critical of the Swiss as he is of the Nazis. He argues that the Swiss government simply closed its eyes to the large amount of art that entered the country from foreign countries, and that Swiss law protected those who purchased it regardless of its origins. The Fischer Gallery in Lucerne became, he says, a kind of clearinghouse for stolen art; while the firm of Hans Wendland in Geneva regularly supplied Hermann Goering with items for his collection, in 1941 a Rembrandt Portrait of an Old Man with a Beard and two sixteenth-century Belgian tapestries in return for twenty-five Impressionist works, twenty-four of which came from the confiscated Paul Rosenberg collection. Swiss citizens who acquired any of these last works, or other stolen properties, had their title assured after five years, as long as they could claim they had acquired them in good faith, which was not difficult. Even people who could prove that the works in question had been stolen from them could reclaim them only after they had reimbursed the purchaser. It is not surprising that, with this kind of protection, Switzerland was flooded with confiscated art, much of which ended up on the walls of its museums, and perhaps more in the vaults of private citizens.

Attempts after the war to reclaim the lost masterpieces proved to be as difficult as in the Russian case. Both the Swiss government and individual purchasers simply stonewalled and hid behind local law. Allied investigators discovered, for example, that the largest purchaser of confiscated art was the armaments maker Emil G. Bührle, a passionate collector and a generous benefactor of the Zurich Kunsthaus, who had used the services of the Fischer Gallery in Lucerne to buy thirteen world-class paintings, most of which had been stolen from French collections. On being confronted with this, Bührle took the position that he had been unaware of the provenance of the paintings and had bought them in good faith.

This tactic did not work against Paul Rosenberg, who sued Bührle for the recovery of his paintings and won in court, although only after he had been forced to listen to Swiss lawyers who claimed that, by trying to hide his collection after the invasion of France, he had violated Vichy law and hence forfeited title and lost the right of repossession. The astonishing detachment of the Swiss lawyers from the realities of the war, which carried the concept of neutrality about as far as it would go, was too much even for the Swiss judges, but Rosenberg’s victory did not affect the other Bührle acquisitions, which, Feliciano writes, are still in the Bührle Foundation collection but whose story is not fully told in its catalog. His own researches led to the discovery that Degas’s Madame Camus at the Piano and two other paintings, listed in the Bührle catalog as having been acquired “from a private French collection” in 1951, were actually purchased in 1942 from the Fischer Gallery, which had presumably bought them from the confiscated collection of Alphonse Kann, a key figure in the French art world before the war.6

Disturbing as the Swiss case may be, it is no more so than that of France, where, fifty years after the end of World War II, the government is only now beginning to show any energy in seeking information about the owners of the estimated two thousand paintings, drawings, sculptures, art objects, rare books, and manuscripts that were taken during the war and are under the protection of France’s national museums. Among these are works by Picasso, Matisse, Vlaminck, Picabia, Cézanne, Degas, Manet, Courbet, Delacroix, Ingres, Boucher, and Chardin, all well enough known, one would think, to be traceable. Indeed, Feliciano had no great difficulty in establishing that Fernand Léger’s Cubist composition Woman in Red and Green, now in the Pompidou Center in Paris, whose directors say they have been unable to find its owner, figured in at least twenty pre-war exhibitions in London, Brussels, Vienna, and Tokyo, and had been part of the collection of the gallery owner Léonce Rosenberg, from which it had been confiscated by the Nazis. He suggests that the reason Rosenberg’s family had not made a claim was probably that, after his death in 1947, they had never been able to determine exactly which of his possessions were missing. “Whatever the case,” he writes, “how could the curators of France’s museums not have ascertained these facts themselves after all these years?” And why did they discourage his own search and refuse to allow him to see relevant documents? “The only reason can be the lack of any will to learn who the owner was, or why he never reclaimed the work.”

The international attention aroused by the debate over the fate of Jewish deposits in Swiss banks during the Second World War has put pressure upon French authorities to do something about Jewish art properties hidden away in their museums and in the offices of their bureaucrats, and the government has promised to set up an independent commission to search for and evaluate Jewish assets held by the government since the war. It would be wise, perhaps, not to expect that tangible results will soon spring forth from this inquiry.

Letters

Spoils of War’ February 5, 1998

  1. 1

    In the first of the books reviewed here, Jeanette Greenfield gives a variety of historical examples extending back to the first millennium BC and quotes Dryden’s gloss on Virgil’s Georgics, IV, 560-561, which is cited above.

  2. 2

    See my article “Loot” in The New York Review, November 17, 1994, pp. 37-40.

  3. 3

    See Craig, “Loot,” p. 40.

  4. 4

    See Richard Jenkyns’s article on the Schliemann treasures, The New York Review, December 16, 1996.

  5. 5

    See Craig, “Loot,” pp. 39-40.

  6. 6

    For the postwar history of other masterpieces from the Kann collection, including eight rare illuminated manuscripts, which ended up in the possession of a New York art dealer, see the article “Staking a Claim to Art the Nazis Looted,” by Alan Riding, The New York Times, September 3, 1997.

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