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The Lost Museum
Cultural looting has almost always been one of the staple by-products of war. From ancient times to the recent war in the former Yugoslavia, art plunder and the willful destruction of cultural heritage is used by the victor as a supplementary means to conquer and humiliate the enemy.
World War II was, of course, no exception to this terrible tradition. Raul Hilberg in his classical “The Destruction of the European Jews” states that the confiscation of the vast art collections and libraries owned by Jews was a part of the vast process that led to the Final Solution. Besides exterminating millions of people and eradicating their long-established culture in large areas of Europe, Hitler’s policy of devastation of the enemy included the organized confiscation of the private art collections and libraries of Jews, Freemasons and political opponents in the occupied countries.
From 1939 to 1945, Hitler and the Nazis collected hundreds of thousands of works of art and millions of books confiscated or forcibly purchased from museums, private collections and libraries in Occupied Europe.
This unique war booty was, in fact, the product of a well-conceived and methodical plan across Europe. It acquired a central and unexpected dimension under Nazism mainly because of Hitler’s own personal interest in painting. A mediocre painter and a worse art collector, Hitler had also, as a young student, twice tried and failed the entrance examination to the School of Fine Arts in Vienna. In spite of his incoherent and unsophisticated personal tastes, Hitler favored the Old Masters of Northern Europe‑Germany, Holland and Flanders‑which strongly enhanced and fitted snugly into his own political views on the superiority of Germanic culture.
But he despised modern art. In “Mein Kampf” he ferociously attacked modern “degenerate” art: Cubism, Futurism, and Dadaism, which he considered the product of decadent twentieth century society. When, in 1933, Hitler took power, he sold or destroyed all the modern paintings found in Germany’s state museums.
The Fuhrer’s objective with the thousands of his new ill-begotten Old Masters and realist painters was the establishment of a European Art Museum to be built in the Austrian city of Linz, where he had spent his childhood years. Other Nazi dignitaries, like Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering and Foreign Affairs minister von Ribbentrop, were also intent on taking advantage of recent German conquests to increase their private art collections.
Among the wealthy occupied countries of Western Europe, France was the most looted of all, not only because it was probably the richest art-wise but also because French Jews were among the best and most important art dealers and collectors at the time. French officials, at the end of the war, estimated that one third of all art in French private hands had been confiscated; an astronomical amount.
Paris was, up to the war, the world’s largest and most important art market, the place where a clientele of well-off French, European and American collectors bought their Old Masters and modern painting. Since the beginning of the century, Jewish marchands d’art had established themselves prominently as some of the best French art dealers and experts shaping and influencing taste. The Wildensteins had turned their antique shop into a prestigious art gallery dealing in Old Masters and nineteenth-century art; the Bernheim-Jeunes specialized in Impressionists and post-Impressionists painters and in 1901 had opened the first important Van Gogh show; Paul Rosenberg, the dealer of Picasso and Braque in the 20s and 30s, held modern art shows in his gallery that attracted hundreds of visitors a day.
After the Occupation of Paris in 1940, the ERR (Einsatzstab Reichsleiters Rosenberg), the official Nazi confiscation service, was created. Headed by Nazi Party ideologue Alfred Rosenberg, it was underhandedly controlled by Goering, who planned, in his own words, to build the largest private art collection in Europe. One of its first tasks was searching and confiscating the art galleries, stock and private collections of Jewish art dealers. The Nazi confiscators also seized the world-renowned art collections and private libraries owned by the Rothschild family, the banking magnate David David-Weill, financier Alphonse Kann and wholesale entrepreneur Adolphe Schloss, among many others.
The Nazis captured these valuable cultural treasures through persistent and well-prepared spy work provided by German secret police and by Nazi art historians as well as by a well-knit network of French informers and collaborationist art dealers.
This well-organized confiscating scheme reached astounding proportions. According to the last ERR Nazi report, 203 private collections, or 21,903 items, were confiscated between November 1940 and July 1944. Some 29 train convoys packed with masterworks left Paris for Germany during that time. In all, 138 wagons filled with 1,170 crates crossed the French-German frontier.
The valuable collection of the French branch of the Rothschild’s banking dynasty was, of course, one of the Nazis’ most craved-for goals. The presence of several masterpieces by North European masters made this collection a priority for Hitler who cast covetous looks on it even before the war started. So, immediately, after the Occupation the Nazis commandeered the family’s Paris mansions and seized their property. The three elegant townhouses set in the selective Place de la Concorde neighborhood‑two of which belong today to the American Embassy in Paris‑were emptied. The Rothschilds’ country manors and chateaux were also requisitioned.
The Nazi obsessively catalogued their loot‑a precise inventory describes 5,003 objects from the Rothschild collection. Among the masterpieces of incalculable value to be found there are Vermeer’s “The Astronomer”, Rembrandt’s “The Standard Bearer”, Frans Hals’ “Portrait of Isabel Coymans”, Gainsborough’s “Portrait of Lady Alston”, Boucher’s “Portrait of Madame de Pompadour” and portraits by Goya.
The seized artworks were loaded on German military trucks and taken to the Jeu de Paume Museum in the Tuileries Gardens, the official Nazi depot for confiscated art. There, far from intruding eyes, a staff of German art historians, experts, photographers, maintenance and administrative personnel appraised, filed, photographed and packed the Rothschilds’ “ownerless cultural goods,” readying them for immediate transport to the Reich.
Hitler and Goering split the collection. Goering was so excited about the haul that he ordered the ERR staff to organize a private show for him with the best pieces. A few days later, he arrived in Paris and stopped over at the Jeu de Paume to spend a moment looking at the masterpieces. But he knew, concerning this particular collection, he would have to yield to Hitler’s first choice. The first shipment started in November 1941. On the train to Germany those crates intended for Hitler were marked with an H and numbered from 1 to 19; while those intended for Goering were marked with a G and numbered from 1 to 23. As expected, Hitler took the lion’s share of the collection: crate “H5” contained the portrait by Gainsborough, crate “H6” the Frans Hals and the two portraits by Goya, while the major piece of the collection, Vermeer’s “The Astronomer,” was traveling in crate “H13”. When Alfred Rosenberg, head of the ERR, learned of the seizure and transport to Germany of the Rothschilds’ collection he wrote a short and self-satisfied note to Martin Bormann, Hitler’s secretary: “In a rush, enclosed you will find a report (on art confiscation) for the Fuhrer which will make him, I believe, happy, I also want to inform the Fuhrer that the painting by Vermeer from Delft he had spoken about was found among the artworks confiscated from the Rothschilds.”
These masterpieces then began a long five-year journey waiting for the war to end. The crates were first sent to Ludwig II’s Bavarian castle at Neuschwanstein, the central confiscated art warehouse in Germany; and, then, when Allied bombing made the region unsafe, the main Rothschild objects were transferred to an underground salt mine near Salzburg in Austria, where they would be found at the end of the war by the advancing U.S. Army, still unpacked in their original marked crates. Ironically, the Nazis, in spite of their haste to confiscate the collection in France, had not yet been able to unpack these masterpieces, unwillingly saving them from dispersal. At the end of the war, the collection, minus a few losses, was given back to the Rothschilds.
The fate of confiscated modern or “degenerate” art was quite different from that of the traditional masters coveted by the Nazis. These art collections were sold, bartered and broken up, making restitution after the war quite difficult. The three hundred paintings seized from the gallery and private collection of art dealer Paul Rosenberg included mostly works by painters despised by Hitler and other Nazi leaders: Not only were there Picassos, Matisses, Braques, Legers but there were also works by Van Gogh, Monet, Renoir, Manet, Degas and Delacroix.
These paintings were confiscated in southern France and transferred and stored in the back room of the Jeu de Paume museum. The French underground curators who had access to this back room called it the Martyrs’ Room, in reference to the vicissitudes awaiting these magnificent works. In fact, since “degenerate” art was not allowed to go into Germany, a few art dealers close to the ERR came to the museum to choose some of these works they could easily sell in the French or Swiss market. The sale or barter of hundreds of these paintings was performed to the personal benefit of Goering who, in this manner, could increase his own art collection. Paul Rosenberg’s collection was scattered across Europe during the war and some 70 of his paintings are missing to this day. Among these, a large watercolor by Picasso, “Naked Woman on the Beach”, painted in Provence in 1923, seven works by Matisse, and a magnificent “Portrait of Gabrielle Diot” by Degas.
Many of these works stolen by the Nazis disappeared for many years, went into complex art market circuits, and then, unexpectedly, surfaced, entering again the world’s art market without their potential buyers suspecting their troubled histories.
In December 1987, Elaine Rosenberg, Paul Rosenberg’s daughter-in-law, was leafing through an art magazine at the Frick Reference Library in New York. While turning the pages, her eyes suddenly met an advertisement announcing the auction sale of important old master and modern paintings at the Mathias F. Hans Gallery in Hamburg, Germany. Rembrandt and Tiepolo drawings and Braques were soon to be auctioned off; but what truly attracted Ms. Rosenberg’s attention was the full-page reproduction of the main work of the sale: the “Portrait of Gabrielle Diot” by Degas. The advertisement explained that the painting had last belonged to the Paul Rosenberg collection in Paris, adding no more details concerning its origins. A stunned Ms. Rosenberg quickly recognized the lost painting confiscated by the Nazis in France from her family more than 40 years before. She rapidly phoned the German art dealer, telling him the whole and real story of the Degas. The dealer explained to her that the owner of the painting had put it on consignment at his gallery, hoping to sell it. He added that according to confidentiality rules he could not disclose the owner’s name but promised to let him know this very important piece of information. When a few days later, Elaine Rosenberg phoned back, the Hamburg dealer told her the “owner” of the painting had taken back the Degas from his gallery and disappeared without leaving any trace. To this day, the painting has not been seen again.
For many lost artworks confiscated by the Nazis during World War II, this is as close as they will ever get to the world’s art market. Aware of the troubled and shady history that surrounds their paintings, the present owners of these art works will try to keep them out of the general market, away from inquisitive eyes. But, even though the time for these missing works to reappear may be very long, sometimes decades, they will always reappear. We must wait until they surface again.
These are the direct consequences of the art looting and plundering orders dictated by Hitler and Goering who wanted‑as we know from the Holocaust‑to impose a homogeneous and limited cultural view on the world.
About the author:
Hector Feliciano has worked from Europe for The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times writing on cultural affairs. This article is based on his book Le Musee disparu (The Lost Museum: The Nazi Conspiracy to Steal the World’s Greatest Works of Art) published in France in 1998. Feliciano has led an in-depth investigation into Nazi art looting in France, using hundreds of interviews and much unpublished material found in Europe and at The National Archives in Washington, DC. The book met with wide success and stirred much debate in Europe. An updated and expanded version of The Lost Museum was published in English by HarperCollins/Basic Books in May 1997.
Feliciano’s research led him to uncover the case of over 2,000 unclaimed artworks, including paintings by Picasso, Leger, Cezanne, Manet, Monet, Renoir, Boucher and others either looted from French Jews or sold to the Nazis and still being kept at the Louvre, Orsay, Centre Pompidou and other French state museums. After Feliciano’s revelations, several looted families proceeded to claim their lost paintings kept in the museums.
The book’s wide media coverage and the large public debate that ensued put French museum curators under pressure to end 50 years of delay, official secrecy, and plain neglect to open up their files and search for the rightful owners of these artworks.
Copyright Hector Feliciano, 1998 (c)