The theft of Art from occupied and conquered countries by the Nazis has been well-documented, and the complex legal issues in the recovery of stolen art, and legal title continues to be an emotional and divisive issue that touches more often than not, on militarism, racism and significant monetary value. Included in this is the less familiar question of stolen art of the Germans illegally confiscated after the War.
As the Nazis moved across Europe in World War II, they systematically looted an estimated twenty percent of the continent’s artwork. German dictator Adolf Hitler chose the best for himself and other high-ranking officials amassed collections as well – HermannGoring took 594 pieces for himself in Paris alone. But art thefts by U.S. servicemen were all but unknown, or at least not documented, or considered significant enough to have been documented.
However, Over the past two decades, globalization, changing attitudes, and the spread of both international law and civil lawsuits have emboldened aggrieved nations to demand the return of cultural property seized by enemy forces decades or even centuries ago, and a few holders of these spoils have complied. Five years ago, Japan returned a Korean monument on the centennial of its theft during the Russo-Japanese War; three years before that, Italy returned a 3,000-year-old obelisk taken during Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia. Even America, is not touched….
“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 … the U.S. War Department was briskly grabbing all German works of art that could be found in the American zone of occupation. 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.
In past conflicts, captured art tended to flow in one direction: from vanquished to conquerors. After Napoleon’s defeat, France had been forced to return the cultural trophies it had taken during its short-lived conquest of Europe, including the carved horses of St. Mark’s in Venice and the Medici Venus. At the end of World War I, Germany was made to disgorge items it had taken, and even some it had legally purchased. But at the end of World War II, the United States broke with tradition. Despite pressure from the National Gallery in Washington and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art to confiscate German collections, United States military commanders insisted collections that rightfully belonged to German museums should stay at those museums. Taking the art, military archivists said, was “neither morally tenable nor trustworthy.” Works that had been shipped to the United States for “safekeeping” were returned to Germany. Art historians staffing the U.S. Army Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Section undertook an unprecedented effort to return tens of thousands of works of art to their rightful owners, public and private.
“Those folks really set the standard for the treatment of cultural property,” says Richard B. Jackson, special assistant for Law of War matters at the U.S. Army Judge Advocate General’s Corps. “We’ve been following in their footsteps in our efforts.”
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
….After her great uncle, Harry Gursky, died in 1988, the 11 paintings – limp canvases removed from their frames – went to McFadden’s parents. Her mother kept them in a closet, unaware of whether they had any value. And after they died, the artwork went to McFadden’s sister in West Windsor, N.J., who kept them in her basement. In November, when the sister was moving, the paintings came to McFadden. She didn’t know whether they were important. A family friend, Barry Pedersen, and his partner in their Mooresville architectural millwork company, Gary Dunne, both of Davidson, offered to help find out….
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.
…Heinrich Buerkel (1802-1869) is not a well-known painter, but his 19th-century landscapes are popular in his hometown of Pirmasens, Germany, near the French border. There, since 1925, the Museum of Pirmasens displayed a collection of his works. But in 1942, during the Allied bombing of the manufacturing city, the museum’s paintings – 18 by Buerkel and oil portraits by other artists – were hidden in the basement of a school that served as a bomb shelter.
On March 22, 1945, U.S. troops occupied Pirmasens and on Sept. 19 the museum announced that “about 50 paintings which had been stored in the air-raid shelter at Husterhoh School during the war have been lost during the arrival of the American troops.” Among the U.S. Army occupiers: Sgt. Harry Gursky.For 60 years, the paintings were missing. Then on Oct. 25, 2005, an auction company in Pennsylvania advertised three of them. Spotting the sale on the Internet, an archivist at the Museum of Pirmasens notified German authorities, who contacted the FBI, who seized the works. …
( 2001)U.S. Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill handed over a dozen drawings — among them a Rembrandt sketch and two pieces by Albrecht Durer — to the president of the Bremen Museum in a ceremony at the U.S. Customs House in Manhattan.
“When stolen treasures are smuggled into the U.S., we do all we can to return them to their rightful owners and to bring any wrongdoers to justice,” O’Neill said. “We take our responsibility very seriously and today we are happy to celebrate a victory in that regard.”
U.S. customs agents seized the ink drawings in a sting operation four years ago. Durer’s “Women Bathing,” which dates to 1496, is the collection’s most valuable work at an estimated $10 million. Experts estimate Rembrandt’s “Woman With Her Arms Raised,” which may depict the artist’s wife, is worth $5 million. The drawings were among 1,500 art works the Bremen Museum moved into a castle outside Berlin in 1943 moved for safekeeping. Soviet troops later removed them, and the pictures did not resurface until 1993 when the National Arts Museum in Baku, Azerbaijan, a former Soviet republic, planned to exhibit them.
That is when the drawings were stolen a second time, along with 180 other drawings belonging to the Baku museum. Four years after the July 1993 theft, a Japanese businessman, Masatsugu Koga, approached the German embassy in Tokyo offering to sell eight of the Bremen drawings for $12 million. …
Read more: http://www.charlotteobserver.com/2010/07/25/1581501/mystery-of-familys-art-unraveled.html#ixzz19kPbnV2F
“But more often than not, the plunder has remained with the plunderer, despite near universal condemnation of the practice by some current belligerents. The Swiss canton of St. Gallen lobbied for years to force Zurich canton to return a 16th-century wooden globe seized in a 1712 invasion, but in 2006 had to settle for a replica. Sweden, which hasn’t fought a war in two centuries, has been under pressure to return looted cultural items not only to the Czechs but also to Poland, Denmark, Norway, and even its own region of Skåne, which it seized from the Danes in 1658. (As one blogger puts it: “It cannot be acceptable that I should have to take my grandchild in the hand, travel 650 kilometers to [the Swedish town of] Skokloster in order to see and experience our own Scanian history and culture.”)
Meanwhile, Germany has been angrily insisting that Russia return a vast trove of art looted at the end of World War II, even as Poland demands billions in compensation for cultural artifacts stolen or destroyed during the Nazi occupation.
Returning plunder to its rightful owner may sound straightforward, but in practice it is extremely difficult, particularly for objects seized in the distant past. Who the “rightful” owner is seems to depend largely on your point of view. After all, for much of human history, armies plundered the vanquished as a matter of course and sometimes went to war solely to do so. Well into the 17th century, armies survived by stealing crops, livestock, and other civilian property, their soldiers pilfering valuables in lieu of a proper salary or disability benefit. Virtually every belligerent participated, causing particular treasures to change hands over and over again, the original “owner” sometimes having been forgotten altogether, occasionally because their civilization had ceased to exist.( Colin Woodward)
…While I appreciate this fascinating post, as director of communications at the Toledo Museum of Art, I do want to clarify one point. The Museum purchased its Meissen Swan Service Nereid from a legitimate New York art dealer in 1956. We had no reason to believe it was stolen. The piece was on public display and widely published during the entire time it has been in our collection. When the Dresden Museum put forth clear and compelling evidence in late 2010 that our piece was the same one that was stolen from them during the latter part of the war, we fully cooperated. This led to the Dec. 23 announcement that the work would be returned to Germany. I do not want any of your readers to associate the Toledo Museum of Art with stolen or looted art since this is the first piece in our 109-year history that we have had to return.
Toledo Museum of Art
Toledo Museum of Art: http://www.toledomuseum.org/