Classic Essays

Art Looting: The Other Side

One endlessly hears of the looting of art during wartime — but strangely, one almost never hears of the looting of German art that took place after World War 2.

WHEN THE EXHIBIT, “German Masters of the Nineteenth Century,” opened at the New York Metropolitan Museum, it was significant because contemporary art history texts treat 19th-century Germany as a cultural wasteland. Frenchmen like Cezanne, Monet, Manet and Gauguin are seen as art personified. For all the critics cared, the rest of the European art world could have chopped up their palettes for kindling wood. Now it is quite true that the French artists had a lot going for them, but not to the exclusion of such talented, but unsung 19th-century German masters as Gustav Richter (1823-1884), Alfred Rethel (1816-1859) and Anselm Feuerbach (1829-1880). (ILLUSTRATION: Anselm Feuerbach – self-portrait)

The French art monopoly of the 19th century is a subject too broad for this article. Suffice it to say that it grew directly out of the salon or French art “supermarket,” the brainchild of art dealers who had changed what had formerly been a medium of cultural expression into a marketable commodity. The salons amassed large numbers of paintings in centrally located urban areas to fill the dual need of the nouveaux riches to buy “culture” for social status, and to latch onto painted canvases for speculative purposes. Early on, control of the major Parisian salons fell into the hands of such art manipulators as Louis Kahnwiler in the 1860s and Leo and Gertrude Stein in the 20th century.

These “French” art traders would retain a stable of painters whose work, while not breaking any aesthetic records, nevertheless met the major salon requirement — they sold! Like most modern products, salon paintings needed advertising and huckstering. It was the advertising blitz of these totally unscrupulous dealers that led the public to consider their painters as geniuses. Consequently, their artists were able to command prices which helped to put a damper of silence on the vibrant artistry of the 19th-century Germans.

Hidden Art

World War 2 era German art: sculptures of Josef Thorak

There is another German art exhibit in the United States that has received much less publicity than the exhibit of the 19th-century German masters. Divided between a rambling, rundown “temporary” wooden structure in Washington, D.C., and a number of dilapidated Quonset huts at the U.S. Army Munitions Depot in Pueblo, Colorado, the German War Art Collection has been in this country since 1945. How these paintings landed in their shabby depositories is not one of the finest moments of American military history.

Shortly after the end of the war, while the Russians were ravaging German civilians and spawning their Communist satellites in Eastern Europe, the U.S. War Department was briskly grabbing all German works of art that could be found in the American zone of occupation.

World War 2 era German art: Homecoming by Hans Bühler

The legal precedent for this massive aesthetic theft was the Potsdam Agreement of 1945 which stated, in part, that “all art collections, both public and private that dealt with themes of National Socialistic aggrandizement be confiscated in toto.” Arbitrarily broadening this Potsdam pronunciamento, War Department personnel began seizing all art, Nazi or otherwise, that dealt with German nationalism, heroism, strength and family life. Eventually the grab bag contained some 9,000 major works of German art.

Much of the booty was originally the property of the Prussian State Museums in Berlin. The Prussian collections were huge: 19 different categories of art housed in 15 separate buildings, nine of which made up “Museum Island” on the River Spree in the center of Old Berlin. The most famous was the Prussian State Library on Unter den Linden, which boasted one of the world’s greatest collections of Northern Renaissance and High Gothic art, plus a priceless rare book section numbering in the hundreds of thousands. Today,  most of their contents are either despoiled, desecrated or scattered.

World War 2 era German art: Psyche by Arno Breker

Many of the invaluable German collections were destroyed after 1942 when the Allies launched the massive bombardment of German civilian targets. What art survived the initial fire bombings was moved away from the River Spree complex to the Reichbank and New Mint vaults.

Early in 1945, as the war situation worsened, the major evacuation of German art began. Under the direction of Dr. Paul Ortwin Rave, assistant director of the Prussian State Museums, the bulk of the surviving collections was ordered transferred to the Kaiseroda mines, south of Eisenach, and to other diverse locations.

But by then, German transportation facilities had deteriorated to practically zero. Rather than let Germany’s remaining art treasures go up in smoke or fall into the hands of vandals, Albert Speer personally intervened and ordered trucks vital to Wehrmacht munition shipments diverted to evacuate the art. Much, unfortunately, had to be left behind, such as the priceless Near Eastern collection “liberated” by the Soviets and never seen again.

After the war, millions of art objects were found in hundreds of vaults, mines, castles, shelters and cellars throughout Germany. Over 1,000 such caches were discovered in the American zone alone.

Arno Breker sculptures, discarded in a back yard, 1945. Many such works, worthy of the greatest artists of the Classical period or the Renaissance, were destroyed after World War 2.

Day and night, American trucks rambled into the Central Collecting Point in the Landesmuseum at Wiesbaden, loaded to the tarps with plunder. In the Kaiseroda potash mines alone, hidden 2,100 feet below the surface, Americans found an estimated 100 tons of pure gold bullion and some of the most valuable contents of 14 Prussian museums.

Although the legal owner of these vast treasures remained the State of Prussia, the Allies quickly enacted laws to confiscate the spoils. In February 1947, the Allied Control Council formally dissolved the sovereign state of Prussia, thereby gaining legal possession of what had already been plundered.

A macabre twist to this unpleasant story took place in 1949. France, Britain and America (but not the Soviet Union) issued ordinances designed to return some of the German art to its original owners as soon as a suitable Western puppet government could be formed and recognized. Once the Federal Republic of Germany was established, it organized the Prussian Cultural Property Foundation to receive the Allies’ stolen goods. Willy Brandt lauded this “reunion” of a token amount of Western benevolence. But Brandt balked when asked to repatriate National Socialist art.

So today it sits, the bulk of German artistic production from 1933 to 1945, in two leaky, nondescript storage complexes in Virginia and Colorado. Access to these works is guarded by a Cerberus named Bess Hormats, curator of the Army Art Collection.

One wonders what exactly those dank warehouses hold; what latent thoughts and suppressed feelings those works might elicit in the minds of Majority viewers, whose artistic diet has been limited in recent times to soup cans and spray paint drippings.

It was Longfellow who wrote in Hyperion that “Art is power!” Is this why our culture wreckers are afraid to let us see these works?

Addendum:

Hans Tucher by Albrecht Durer

Early in 1946, or so the story goes, Edward Elicofon, a Latvian-born Jewish lawyer and Brooklyn art scavenger, got wind that an ex-G.I. was selling stolen German art at rock bottom prices. Smelling vast profits, Elicofon paid $450 for two portraits that “seemed to go together. He later claimed that he knew nothing about the works except that “they were very beautiful.”

The paintings that Elicofon bought that day in 1946 from the G.I. who said he got them at a German “flea market” were none other than the famous Nuremberg husband and wife double portraits of Hans and Felicitas Tucher by Albrecht Durer (1499), taken from the Schwarzburg Castle near Weimar in 1945. In 1966, after Elicofon tried to sell these works at auction for $10 million, the Art Collection of Weimar, an East German museum, sued for custody. Judge Jacob Mishler of the Federal District Court in Brooklyn ruled that the German museum “has demonstrated that the Durers were stolen and that it is entitled as owner to possession.”

Felicitas Tucher by Albrecht Durer

Elicofon, who says he has been terribly wronged, vows to take his case to the Supreme Court. He contends that he bought the paintings in good faith because he “did not know” that they were the famous portraits, even though he admitted that since childhood he had always admired Durer’s work. He also alleges, “no one could prove that the seller [the G.I.] had not somehow acquired valid title to them in Germany.” Finding and gaining title to two Durer masterpieces at a flea market is about as likely as buying the Mona Lisa at a yard sale.

Elicofon swears that if he can regain ownership of these works, he will give some, but not all of the proceeds to Jewish charities. “It would be a minute reparation for the wrongs done to the Jews by the Germans,” he declares. Once again, the Holocaust is called upon to mask Jewish profiteering.

The tragedy is that of the estimated 8,000 major German paintings that disappeared between 1939-1945, the two Durer portraits are among the very few that have so far been recovered.

(Based on a 1982 article in Instauration)

Read more at Jamie Kelso’s online Instauration archive

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  1. […] is another German art exhibit in the United States that has received much less publicity than the exhibit of the 19th-century German masters. Divided between a rambling, rundown […]

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