nazi art theft

Art Theft: The Last Unsolved Nazi Crime

Earlier this month, a spectacular cache of more than 1,400 artworks surfaced in Germany—works that had been unknown to the public or presumed to be lost. And as details have emerged, one elderly American has been on the phone to his lawyer every day.

For the past five years, 88-year-old David Toren and his 92-year-old brother—both Holocaust survivors—have been trying to track down a beautiful painting that their great-uncle, the collector David Friedmann, lost due to Nazi persecution: “Two riders on the beach,” by the German Impressionist Max Liebermann. Their lawyer spotted the long-lost painting on TV when it was presented to the public as one of the pieces discovered in an apartment in Munich. But whether the brothers will ever get it back is far from clear.

Between 1933 and 1945, the tightening grip of the Third Reich facilitated one of history’s biggest art thefts. Initially, Jewish dealers were effectively forced to sell their precious collections at bargain prices before fleeing abroad. Later, Jewish-owned collections—such as those of David Friedmann, who died of natural causes in 1942—were systematically confiscated. Other pieces were looted after their owners were deported to concentration camps. Paintings that were deemed modern or subversive were snatched from museums and exhibited as “degenerate” art.

Read more. [Image: Reuters/Michael Dalder]
Fate of 'degenerate art' revealed

London’s Victoria and Albert Museum is publishing online two volumes which record what the Nazi regime did with confiscated ‘degenerate art’.

Hitler believed post-impressionist modern art, including Expressionists such as Kandinsky and Otto Dix, to be “evidence of a deranged mind”.

He ordered more than 16,000 artworks, including works by Van Gogh and Man Ray, to be removed from German museums.

The ledgers reveal the fate of those artworks, many of which were destroyed.

The Entartete Kunst inventory, compiled in 1941-42, was donated to the V&A by the widow of Heinrich Robert (Harry) Fischer in 1996. The term Entartete Kunst translates as “degenerate art”.

Since then it has been used by art researchers across the world as they attempt to identify the provenance of particular paintings that went missing during the Nazi era.

V&A curator Douglas Dodds, who is responsible for making the ledgers available to the the public, told the BBC that the volumes were “systematically organised”.

“This was a major campaign managed from the top,” he told the BBC’s arts editor Will Gompertz.

“For me there are so many echoes of what happened later to people, as well as artworks.”

For each institution, confiscated works are listed alphabetically by artist and include information on what happened to each piece - using symbols such as “T” (for exchanged) and “V” (for sold). Those marked “X” were destroyed.

Often the name of the work’s buyer and a price are given, with names including Hermann Goering and Hildebrand Gurlitt frequently recurring.

Hitler, a failed artist, maintained that “anyone who sees and paints the sky green and fields blue ought to be sterilised”, there was still some “uncertainty ” among other Nazi leaders about what constituted “good art”, prompting Goring to buy up some of the artworks for his own private collection.

Hildebrand Gurlitt is the father of Cornelius Gurlitt, in whose Munich apartment more than 1,400 artworks were found last year, many of which were alleged to have been looted by the Nazis.

It was in response the discovery of Gurlitt’s trove of paintings - including works, long thought to have been lost or destroyed, by Marc Chagall, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse - that the V&A decided to make the records public.

Many of the paintings withdrawn from Germany’s museums had been loaned by private individuals and were never returned.

Much of the documentation held by the institutions from which the art was confiscated has never been made available to those seeking the restitution of lost art, so the V&A volumes will offer new hope.