The Lost Museum

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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…
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