Monday, July 22, 2019


New research is helping the hunt for missing art, largely amassed by Hitler, then re-stolen by desperate Germans in the closing days of the war. Chaos reigned in the bomb-ravaged streets of Munich on April 29, 1945. American troops were closing in. Hitler was a day away from killing himself in his bunker in Berlin. The Nazi guards who protected important buildings had fled.

Hungry crowds stormed the Führerbau, the Führer’s building. First they looted the food, the liquor and the furniture. Then they turned to the air-raid cellar, which was filled with art, climbing over piles of Panzerfaust anti-tank grenades to get at the paintings. “By the end of the second day,” Edgar Breitenbach, an art intelligence officer in the United States Army, wrote in a 1949 report “when the looting was finally stopped, all the pictures were gone.”

Institute for Art History in Munich has conducted the first comprehensive investigation into the fate of the art that was stored in the Führer’s building and the adjacent Nazi headquarters. A lot of it had been ferried there by dealers who scavenged for art across occupied Europe to help fill Hitler’s planned “Führermuseum” in Linz, his hometown. Most of those works were already stored in Austrian salt mines to protect them from bombings.

But the Munich buildings still held some 1,500 works, the researchers found, and at least 700 were looted in the two-day spree — many more than previously thought. Much of the art was already stolen property, having been confiscated by the Nazis from Jewish collections. Hundreds of the works stored there, for example, had been taken from the family of Adolphe Schloss, a French Jew who had collected the Dutch and Flemish old masters that Hitler revered.

In the aftermath of the looting, the authorities were able to recover almost 300 paintings, many in the weeks after the plunder. Some were found buried in a nearby potato patch. In 1948, 30 paintings were found in a house a few minutes’ walk from the Führerbau.

So far, the research has managed to find traces of some three dozen of the missing works. One is in the Fisher Museum of Art at the University of Southern California, which discovered 14 years ago that a painting in its collection had been looted from the Führerbau. The painting by Gerard Dou, “Still Life With Book and Purse,” entered the collection in 1964 as part of a donation by Armand Hammer, who had purchased it in New York in 1947. But its prewar ownership history, and the circumstances of how it went to Hitler, remain unclear.

One obstacle to the full restitution of works, even when they are found, is a principle of German law known as Ersitzung. It dictates that someone who acquires an item in good faith and possesses it for 10 years becomes the rightful owner. So in Germany, even in cases where the government seeks to restitute a work it has found, it can be difficult to dislodge it legally from a collector who bought it without knowledge that it was stolen.

In a case from 2017, the government tried to intervene when a portrait of two girls by Franz von Stuck that was destined for Linz appeared in a catalog for an auction in Cologne. The government persuaded the auction house to withdraw it from sale so researchers would have time to examine the provenance. But they found no evidence that the painting had been looted from a Jewish collection and the private collector held good title to the work under the Ersitzung rule. So the sale to another private collection went forward. Down the road, if it emerges that the work was indeed looted from a Jewish collector, experts say it may prove difficult to find again.

As the decades pass, it is certainly true that multiple transfers and legal complexities in varying jurisdictions make it increasingly hard to trace looted art and to resolve tangled questions of ownership.


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