Art & The Third Reich: Appraising Art in the Aftermath of World War II

There it was.  Twenty-seven years as an appraiser and the topic had always been looming somewhere in the background.  I always knew at some future time a very large ethical conundrum would rear its ugly head, what to do when I discover Nazi-looted art in the collection of a client.   On the phone that day was a colleague who needed my help with a collection of art owned by an elderly German lady, now living in North Texas, a German lady whose family had been “personal friends of Hitler.”   My colleague’s client wanted to sell the work and I was asked to give my opinion of value. Gustav Klimt's painting "Adele Bloch-Bauer I" was on display in April last year in Los Angeles as part of a special display of art looted by the Nazis

Ever since the Nazi war machine undertook their hideous plan of complete cultural annihilation of the Jews in the late 1930’s, the ripples of consequences have continued to expand.  The Allies did defeat the Nazis in 1945.  But by that time, millions of lives had been lost and the Nazis had systematically looted the fortunes of Jewish inhabitants of every country through which they had waged war.   In some countries, they swept in and seized the collections and shipped the owners off to concentration camps.  In other areas, like Poland, they carried out a scorched earth policy, seeking to erase the cultural heritage of whole people groups as they swarmed through.

Hitler fancied himself an artist.  As an 18-year-old he had applied to the Art Academy in Vienna and been rejected twice, his drawing skills declared unsatisfactory. He had a very set idea of “good” art vs. “bad” art.  Hitler’s tastes ran to realism.   He adored the old masters and disdained most art created from late 19th C. Impressionists forward.  Power in Germany during the Nazi-era was dispensed by Hitler.  Climbing the ranks meant adopting Hitler’s interests and his tastes.  Art and politics were always intermingled in the Third Reich. Hitler planned to “Germanize” every country under his control.   Young Nazi officers and political leaders were encouraged to collect art, attend concerts and cultural events, so long as the art fit Hitler’s parameters for “good” art.   The Nazi elite had a bit of a competition amongst themselves for who might amass the best and biggest collection of art. What better opportunity to “collect” than to rape the collections carefully assembled over years by collectors and dealers who were named enemies of the state and disenfranchised?

But early in his rise to power, Hitler started his cultural policies in Germany itself.  He ordered all museum directors within Germany to “cleanse” their collections of what were labeled Degenerate Art, and mounted an art show in Munich in 1937 of these pieces.  Labels accompanying the exhibition derided the work and propagandized against the creators, mostly Jewish artists.  After removal from German museum collections, many were destroyed.  However, the Nazis were conniving enough to offer those that could be sold in the Paris and Swiss markets up for sale.

As the war progressed, a large corps of Nazi bureaucrats whose job it was to expropriate all items of value closely followed the war machine into each new area of conquest.   In such cultural hubs as Paris, the Nazis and their Vichy collaborators’ goal was to have business and commerce continue as the Nazis took over power.   Galleries not owned by Jews remained open, some selling pieces stolen from their former Jewish colleagues.  Auction houses in Paris and neutral Switzerland continued with their business.  Questions about the origins of the artwork being offered for sale were not being asked.   Whether owners were selling under duress or whether the pieces offered were stolen goods, the sales went on unabated.   At the same time, large collections of stolen art were being gathered at the Jeu de Paume in Paris and specially commandeered trains were hauling loads of art back to Germany on a regular basis.  Hitler had made his plans for a large art museum in Linz, Austria be known early in the war and his loyalists began assembling a massive collection of art for that project.

At the end of the war, the American and British forces set up what came to be known as the Monuments Men, corps of specially trained military officers whose job it was to quickly locate art looted by the Nazis, gather the pieces into several safe storage areas, attempt to catalogue the art and begin the process of returning works to their rightful owners.   This proved to be a huge task that raised many ethical and legal questions.  What sort of proofs were those seeking return of their property required to offer? These people had been driven out of their homes.  The idea that they would have sales receipts or other proofs of ownership was unreasonable.  What was to be done with unclaimed pieces?  After all, the Nazi regime killed six million Jews.  Some of those whose artwork was stolen were murdered and would never return for their art.  What about pieces that had been sold by Jewish families during the war years?  Were those sales to be considered irrelevant because the owners likely were under duress or were those to be considered legitimate sales?

An American soldier inspects a recovered engraving by the 15th century German artist Albrecht Durer

On some matters, an international consensus of legal opinion regarding ownership and reparations was developed.  On other matters, various countries implemented laws which conflict radically with one another.  For instance, America and Great Britain have laws in place that make it illegal to have title to stolen goods, whether one was knowledgeable about the theft or not.  A thief cannot pass title to stolen goods, whether the buyer is knowledgeable of the theft or not.  It these countries, if a property is offered for sale and there is a legitimate claim of ownership from a former owner, that owner has the legal standing to seek their property.  Under Swiss law, however, if a purchaser is a “good faith” purchaser of an item, they may acquire a title to that property superior to the original owner.   In other words, if the purchaser had no reason to believe they were buying stolen goods, they can claim title to the purchased item.   An original owner must legally prove the current owner knew he was buying tainted goods in order the reclaim the property.

In the almost 70 years since the end of World War II, much has changed in the art market.  There are whole bookshelves of historical books detailing the atrocities carried out be the Nazis.   Dedicated art historians and sleuths have picked through the records and reported to the world about the Nazi regime’s methodology and many of the individual victims of their schemes. Databases of stolen art are now much easier to access.  Art historians, museum curators, auctioneers and appraisers have been trained regarding what to do with items presented with provenances that get murky or sketchy in the period surrounding WWII.  As one generation succeeds the next and artwork is offered for sale publically for the first time since the 1940’s, some rancorous lawsuits have occurred between Jewish heirs and those who had no idea that their collections contained pieces with ownership questions.

Picasso's "Absinthe Drinker" was pulled from a Christie's auction after its pedigree was called into question

I have always wondered about the competing ethical issues that would come into play if I was ever asked to appraise a piece that research revealed might have been stolen during WWII.  An appraiser has an ethical responsibility to her client to maintain the privacy of that client.  We are not allowed to reveal the names of our clients, their reasons for seeking an appraisal or any of the salient facts about their collections, unless given permission by our clients or compelled by law.    My only connection thus far to WWII-related art was an appraisal for the heirs of a Jewish family that had been able to escape Germany in 1939, through Holland and eventually to Alabama and had miraculously been able to bring some of their art with them.   But, I had never personally had to deal with the sticky issue of stolen art.  I had always presumed it would raise its ugly head in the form of an owner with a nice collection that had come down through inheritance, where the intervening generations had lost the story of how and where grandpa had bought a particular painting.  I worried about how a client might take such news about their beloved painting and what I might do if they chose to bury the information. Would I have an ethical obligation to maintain my client’s privacy or were there laws in place to compel that the information go public?  Gratefully, I have never been faced with the issue in that manner.

But, on that afternoon a few weeks ago, the issue came up in the most unexpected way….an owner who had been a young girl in a prominent family, who watched the rise of Nazism and had met Hitler personally.   Was I about to inspect a large cache of previously Jewish-owned art?  How did this woman come to be living in our neighborhood for so many years?   How had she gotten out of Germany in the post-war years and brought artwork with her?   I wondered all of this when I took my friend’s call.  But, we did not discuss much of it on the phone that afternoon.   After so many years as an appraiser, one lesson well learned is that family stories are always intriguing and sometimes conflict with what can be proven from personal inspection of the artwork.  As it turned out, the paintings that came for inspection left me with no questions of ownership.  They were all portrait miniatures of various family members.  The lady had been a member of an Austrian family that had included minor royalty and several decorated soldiers in the 18th C.; no hidden Vermeer; no tough conundrums, just portrait miniatures.   So, I did the research necessary and gave the values to my colleague.

"Swans Reflecting Elephants" by Salvador Dali was among the art stolen by the Nazis

This is an issue that I expect will continue to haunt the art world for many years to come.  One might think there would not be many competing ownership claims sixty-eight years after the war has ended.  But, they do arise.  Some of the artwork left the market during the war years and has not publically been seen since.  As older generations pass art to their heirs, as museums begin to investigate more thoroughly the provenances of their collections, items will come to light.  The process of making a claim for art has never been easy and while the intervening years have changed the approach to research, an heir has to be tenacious if she or he expects to receive reparation for their family’s artwork.  Professionals in all fields related to art are expected to be aware of items which might be questionable.  Most American and European museums have standardized their policies regarding such materials and most do seek to return items to heirs when such objects are discovered.  Auction houses are on guard for items that might be caught up in contentious litigation.  But at the private level, appraisers do have competing ethical obligations.  I believe we are responsible for good research and for reporting results to the owners who are our clients.  What is done with any discoveries after that point may be out of our control.

Brenda Simonson-Mohle, ISA CAPP Art Advisor, Appraiser






Post Script:

This is a fascinating, albeit morbid, area of research.   For those who would like to delve into some of the history of the period, here is a list of resources and, where not evident by the titles, a brief synopsis of what each covers.

The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History by Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter

The Monuments Men – new movie –for release late fall, 2013.  Preview below.

Be sure to catch The Monuments Men, a George Clooney directed movie going into wide release later this fall.  This is a Hollywood version of events.  But, I hope it tells the story of this fascinating group of individuals who did much to rescue precious art and preserve our cultural patrimony from the grasp of the Nazis.

The Rape of Europa: the Fate of Europe’s Treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War by Lynn H. Nicholas Traces Hitler’s path of destruction and acquisition in various countries over the course of the war. There is also a documentary film by the same title and based on the book.  It is stupendous and adds visuals to the weight of Nicholas’ words.

Art and Politics in the Third Reich by Jonathan Petropoulos The first part of this book describes the importance of art to Hitler and how it figured into Nazi life and the Nazi definition of German culture.  The second half covers several individual highly placed Nazis, how and what they gathered.

The Lost Museum: The Nazi Conspiracy to Steal the World’s Greatest Works of Art by Hector Feliciano. This book discusses why art was important to Hitler and the Third Reich.  It also traces the systematic pillaging of several major collections targeted by the Nazis. It also discusses the role of the art market during the war years in disposing of and paying the Nazis for stolen are and the turmoil certain heirs have undergone in trying to recover their art.

The Spoils of War; World War II and its Aftermath:  the Loss, Reappearance and Recovery of Cultural Property edited by Elizabeth Simpson This is a collection of 50 essays presented at an international symposium on Nazi art looting that was hosted by Bard Graduate Center (New York, NY)  in 1996.   Each of the speakers takes on the loss of art in a given country and thorny issues they have encountered.  The appendix of the book also lists treaties from various countries that relate to the protection and return of cultural property.

Interesting Articles and Sources:

The Monuments Men Foundation

“The Lady in Gold: The Extraordinary Tale of Gustav Klimt's Masterpiece, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer”