Adolf Hitler was an unsuccessful artist who was denied admission to the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts. Nonetheless, he thought of himself as a connoisseur of the arts, and in Mein Kampf he ferociously attacked modern art as degenerate, including: Cubism; Futurism; and Dadaism; all of which he considered the product of a decadent twentieth century society. In 1933 when Hitler became Chancellor of Germany, he enforced his aesthetic ideal on the nation. The types of art that were favored amongst the Nazi party were classical portraits and landscapes by Old Masters, particularly those of Germanic origin. Modern art that did not match this was dubbed degenerate art by the Third Reich, and all that was found in Germany's state museums was to be sold or destroyed. With the sums raised, the Führer's objective was to establish the European Art Museum in Linz. Other Nazi dignitaries, like Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering and Foreign Affairs minister von Ribbentrop, were also intent on taking advantage of German military conquests to increase their private art collections.
The art dealers Hildebrand Gurlitt, Karl Buchholz, Ferdinand Moeller and Bernhard Boehmer set up shop in Schloss Niederschonhausen, just outside Berlin, to sell the near-16,000 cache of paintings and sculptures which Hitler and Goering removed from the walls of German museums in 1937-38. They were first put on display in the Haus der Kunst in Munich on 19 July 1937, with the Nazi leaders inviting public mockery by two million visitors who came to view the condemned modern art in the Degenerate art exhibition. Propagandist Joseph Goebbels in a radio broadcast called Germany's degenerate artists "garbage". Hitler opened the Haus der Kunst exhibition with a speech. In it he described German art as suffering "a great and fatal illness".
Hildebrand Gurlitt and his colleagues did not have much success with their sales, mainly because art labelled "rubbish" had small appeal. So on 20 March 1939 they set fire to 1,004 paintings and sculptures and 3,825 watercolours, drawings and prints in the courtyard of the Berlin Fire Department, an act of infamy similar to their earlier well-known book burnings. The propaganda act raised the attention they hoped. The Basel Museum in Switzerland arrived with 50,000 Swiss francs to spend. Shocked art lovers came to buy. What is unknown after these sales is how many paintings were kept by Gurlitt, Buchholz, Moeller and Boehmer and sold by them to Switzerland and America - ships crossed the Atlantic from Lisbon - for personal gain.
While the Nazis were in power, they plundered cultural property from every territory they occupied. This was conducted in a systematic manner with organizations specifically created to determine which public and private collections were most valuable to the Nazi Regime. Some of the objects were earmarked for Hitler's never realized Führermuseum, some objects went to other high-ranking officials such as Hermann Göring, while other objects were traded to fund Nazi activities.
In 1940, an organization known as the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg für die Besetzten Gebiete (The Reichsleiter Rosenberg Institute for the Occupied Territories), or ERR, was formed, headed for Alfred Rosenberg by Gerhard Utikal. The first operating unit, the western branch for France, Belgium and the Netherlands, called the Dienststelle Westen (Western Agency), was located in Paris. The chief of this Dienststelle was Kurt von Behr. Its original purpose was to collect Jewish and Freemasonic books and documents, either for destruction, or for removal to Germany for further "study". However, late in 1940, Hermann Göring, who in fact controlled the ERR, issued an order that effectively changed the mission of the ERR, mandating it to seize "Jewish" art collections and other objects. The war loot had to be collected in a central place in Paris, the Museum Jeu de Paume. At this collection point worked art historians and other personnel who inventoried the loot before sending it to Germany. Göring also commanded that the loot would first be divided between Hitler and himself. Hitler later ordered that all confiscated works of art were to be made directly available to him. From the end of 1940 to the end of 1942 Göring traveled twenty times to Paris. In the Museum Jeu de Paume, art dealer Bruno Lohse staged 20 expositions of the newly looted art objects, especially for Göring, from which Göring selected at least 594 pieces for his own collection. Göring made Lohse his liaison-officer and installed him in the ERR in March 1941 as the deputy leader of this unit. Items which Hitler and Göring did not want were made available to other Nazi leaders. Under Rosenberg and Göring's leadership, the ERR seized 21,903 art objects from German-occupied countries.
Other Nazi looting organizations included the Sonderauftrag Linz, the organization run by the art historian Hans Posse, which was particularly in charge of assembling the works for the Führermuseum, the Dienststelle Mühlmann, operated by Kajetan Mühlmann, which Göring also controlled and operated primarily in the Netherlands, Belgium, and a Sonderkommando Kuensberg connected to the minister of foreign affairs Joachim von Ribbentrop, which operated first in France, then in Russia and North Africa. In Western Europe, with the advancing German troops, were elements of the 'von Ribbentrop Battalion', named after Joachim von Ribbentrop. These men were responsible for entering private and institutional libraries in the occupied countries and removing any materials of interest to the Germans, especially items of scientific, technical or other informational value.
Art collections from prominent Jewish families, including the Rothschilds, the Rosenbergs, the Wildensteins and the Schloss Family were the targets of confiscations because of their significant value. Also Jewish art dealers sold art to German organizations - often under duress, e.g. the art dealerships of Jacques Goudstikker, Benjamin and Nathan Katz and Kurt Walter Bachstitz. Also non-Jewish art dealers sold art to the Germans, e.g. the art dealers De Boer and Hoogendijk in the Netherlands.
By the end of the war, the Third Reich amassed hundreds of thousands of cultural objects.
To investigate and estimate Nazi plunder in the USSR during 1941 through 1945, the Soviet State Extraordinary Commission for Ascertaining and Investigating the Crimes Committed by the German-Fascist Invaders and Their Accomplices was formed on 2 November 1942. During the Great Patriotic War and afterwards, until 1991, the Commission collected materials on Nazi crimes in the USSR, including incidents of plunder. Immediately following the war, the Commission outlined damage in detail to sixty-four of the most valuable Soviet museums, out of 427 damaged ones. In the Russian SFSR, 173 museums were found to have been plundered by the Nazis, with looted items numbering in the hundreds of thousands.
After the dissolution of the USSR, the Government of the Russian Federation formed the State Commission for the Restitution of Cultural Valuables to replace the Soviet Commission. Experts from this Russian institution originally consulted the work of the Soviet Commission, yet continue to catalogue artworks lost during the war museum by museum. As of 2008, lost artworks of 14 museums and the libraries of Voronezh Oblast, Kursk Oblast, Pskov Oblast, Rostov Oblast, Smolensk Oblast, Northern Caucasus, Gatchina, Peterhof Palace, Tsarskoye Selo (Pushkin), Novgorod and Novgorod Oblast, as well as the bodies of the Russian State Archives and CPSU Archives, were catalogued in 15 volumes, all of which were made available online. They contain detailed information on 1,148,908 items of lost artworks. The total number of lost items is unknown so far, because cataloguing work for other damaged Russian museums is ongoing.
Alfred Rosenberg commanded the so-called Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg [ERR] für die Besetzten Gebiete, which was responsible for collecting art, books, and cultural objects from invaded countries, and also transferred their captured library collections back to Berlin during the retreat from Russia. “In their search for 'research materials' ERR teams and the Wehrmacht visited 375 archival institutions, 402 museums, 531 institutes, and 957 libraries in Eastern Europe alone”. The ERR also operated in the early days of the blitzkrieg of the Low Countries. This caused some confusion about authority, priority, and the chain of command among the German Army, the von Rippentropp Battalion and the Gestapo, and as a result of personal looting among the Army officers and troops. These ERR teams were, however, very effective. One account estimates that from the Soviet Union alone: “one hundred thousand geographical maps were taken on ideological grounds, for academic research, as means for political, geographical and economic information on Soviet cities and regions, or as collector's items”.
After the occupation of Poland by German forces in September 1939, the Nazi regime attempted to exterminate its upper classes as well as its culture. Thousands of art objects were looted, as the Nazis systematically carried out a plan of looting prepared even before the start of hostilities. 25 museums and many other facilities were destroyed. The total cost of German Nazi theft and destruction of Polish art is estimated at 20 billion dollars, or an estimated 43% of Polish cultural heritage; over 516,000 individual art pieces were looted, including 2,800 paintings by European painters; 11,000 paintings by Polish painters; 1,400 sculptures; 75,000 manuscripts; 25,000 maps; 90,000 books, including over 20,000 printed before 1800; and hundreds of thousands of other items of artistic and historical value. Germany still has much Polish material looted during World War II. For decades there have been mostly futile negotiations between Poland and Germany concerning the return of the looted property.
After Hitler became Chancellor, he made plans to transform his home city of Linz, Austria into the Third Reich's capital city for the arts. Hitler hired architects to work from his own designs to build several galleries and museums, which would collectively be known as the Führermuseum. Hitler wanted to fill his museum with the greatest art treasures in the world, and believed that most of the world's finest art belonged to Germany after having been looted during the Napoleonic and First World wars.
The Hermann Göring collection, a personal collection of Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring, was another large collection including confiscated property, consisted of approximately 50 percent of works of art confiscated from the enemies of the Reich. Assembled in large measure by art dealer Bruno Lohse, Göring's adviser and ERR representative in Paris, in 1945 the collection included over 2,000 individual pieces including more than 300 paintings. The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration's Consolidated Interrogation Report No. 2 states that Göring never crudely looted, instead he always managed "to find a way of giving at least the appearance of honesty, by a token payment or promise thereof to the confiscation authorities. Although he and his agents never had an official connection with the German confiscation organizations, they nevertheless used them to the fullest extent possible."
The Third Reich amassed hundreds of thousands of objects from occupied nations and stored them in several key locations, such as Musée Jeu de Paume in Paris and the Nazi headquarters in Munich. As the Allied forces gained advantage in the war and bombed Germany's cities and historic institutions, Germany "began storing the artworks in salt mines and caves for protection from Allied bombing raids. These mines and caves offered the appropriate humidity and temperature conditions for artworks." Well known repositories of this kind were mines in Merkers, Altaussee and Siegen. These mines were not only used for the storage of looted art but also of art that had been in Germany and Austria before the beginning of the Nazi rule. Degenerate art was legally banned by the Nazis from entering Germany, and so ones designated were held in what was called the Martyr's Room at the Jeu de Paume. Much of Paul Rosenberg's professional dealership and personal collection were so subsequently designated by the Nazis. Following Joseph Goebels earlier private decree to sell these degenerate works for foreign currency to fund the building of the Führermuseum and the wider war effort, Hermann Goering personally appointed a series of ERR approved dealers to liquidate these assets and then pass the funds to swell his personal art collection, including Hildebrand Gurlitt. With the looted degenerate art sold onwards via Switzerland, Rosenberg's collection was scattered across Europe. Today, some 70 of his paintings are missing, including: the large Picasso watercolor Naked Woman on the Beach, painted in Provence in 1923; seven works by Matisse; and the Portrait of Gabrielle Diot by Degas.
The Allies created special commissions, such as the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives (MFAA) organization to help protect famous European monuments from destruction, and after the war, to travel to formerly Nazi-occupied territories to find Nazi art repositories. In 1944 and 1945 one of the greatest challenges for the "Monuments Men" was to keep Allied forces from plundering and "taking artworks and sending them home to friends and family"; When "off-limits" warning signs failed to protect the artworks the "Monuments Men" started to mark the storage places with white tape, which was used by Allied troops as a warning sign for unexploded mines. They recovered thousands of objects, many of which were pillaged by the Nazis.
The Allies found these artworks in over 1,050 repositories in Germany and Austria at the end of World War II. In summer 1945, Capt. Walter Farmer became the collecting point's first director. The first shipment of artworks arriving at Wiesbaden Collection Point included cases of antiquities, Egyptian art, Islamic artefacts, and paintings from the Kaiser Friedrich Museum. The collecting point also received materials from the Reichsbank and Nazi-looted, Polish, liturgical collections. At its height, Wiesbaden stored, identified, and restituted approximately 700,000 individual objects including paintings and sculptures, mainly to keep them away from the Soviet Army and wartime reparations.
The Allies collected the artworks and stored them in collecting points, in particular the Central Collection Point in Munich until they could be returned. The identifiable works of art, that had been acquired by the Germans during the Nazi rule, were returned to the countries from which they were taken. It was up to the governments of each nation if and under which circumstances they would return the objects to the original owners.
When the Munich collection point was closed, the owners of many of the objects had not been found. Nations were also unable to find all of the owners or to verify that they were dead. There are many organizations put in place to help return the stolen items taken from the Jewish people. For example: Project Heart, the World Jewish Restitution Organization, and The Claims Conference. Depending on the circumstances these organizations may receive the art works in lieu of the heirs.
Further reading: United States restitution to the Soviet Union
Although most of the stolen artworks and antiques were documented, found or recovered "by the victorious Allied armies ... principally hidden away in salt mines, tunnels, and secluded castles", many artworks have never been returned to their rightful owners. Art dealers, galleries and museums worldwide have been compelled to research their collection's provenance in order to investigate claims that some of the work was acquired after it had been stolen from its original owners. Already in 1985, years before American museums recognized the issue and before the international conference on Nazi-looted assets of Holocaust victims, European countries released inventory lists of works of art, coins and medals "that were confiscated from Jews by the Nazis during World War II, and announced the details of a process for returning the works to their owners and rightful heirs." In 1998 an Austrian advisory panel recommended the return of 6,292 objets d'art to their legal owners (most of whom are Jews), under the terms of a 1998 restitution law. Nazi concentration camp and death camp victims had to strip completely before their murder, and all their personal belongings were stolen. The very valuable items such as gold coins, rings, spectacles, jewellry and other precious metal items were sent to the Reichsbank for conversion to bullion. The value was then credited to SS accounts.
Pieces of art looted by the Nazis can still be found in Russian/Soviet and American institutions: the Metropolitan Museum of Art revealed a list of 393 paintings that have gaps in their provenance during the Nazi Era, the Art Institute of Chicago has posted a listing of more than 500 works "for which links in the chain of ownership for the years 1933–1945 are still unclear or not yet fully determined." The San Diego Museum of Art and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art provide lists on the internet to determine if art items within their collection were stolen by the Nazis.
Stuart Eizenstat, the Under Secretary of State and head of the U.S. delegation sponsoring the 1998 international conference on Nazi-looted assets of Holocaust victims in Washington conference stated that "From now on, ... the sale, purchase, exchange and display of art from this period will be addressed with greater sensitivity and a higher international standard of responsibility." The conference was attended by more than forty countries and thirteen different private entities, and the goal was to come to a federal consensus on how to handle Nazi-Era Looted Art. The conference was built on the foundation of the Nazi Gold Conference held in London in 1997. The U.S. Department of State hosted the conference with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum from November 30 to December 3, 1998.
After the conference the Association of Art Museum Directors developed guidelines which require museums to review the provenance or history of their collections, focusing especially on art looted by the Nazis. The National Gallery of Art in Washington identified more than 400 European paintings with gaps in their provenance during World War II era. One particular piece of art, "Still Life with Fruit and Game" by the 16th-century Flemish painter Frans Snyders, was sold by Karl Haberstock, whom the World Jewish Congress describes as "one of the most notorious Nazi art dealers." In 2000 the New York City's Museum of Modern Art still told Congress that they were "not aware of a single Nazi-tainted work of art in our collection, of the more than 100,000" they held.
In 1979 two paintings, a Renoir, Tête de jeune fille, and a Pissarro, Rue de village, appeared on Interpol's "12 Most Wanted List," but to date no one knows their whereabouts (ATA Newsletter, Nov. '79, vol. 1, no. 9, p. 1. '78, 326.1-2) The New Jersey owner has asked IFAR to republish information about the theft, with the hope that someone will recognize the paintings. The owner wrote IFAR that when his parents emigrated from Berlin in 1938, two of their paintings "mysteriously disappeared." All of their other possessions were shipped from Germany to the U.S. via the Netherlands, and everything except the box containing these two paintings arrived intact. After World War II the owner's father made a considerable effort to locate the paintings, but was unsuccessful. Over the years numerous efforts have been made to recover them, articles have been published, and an advertisement appeared in the German magazine, Die Weltkunst, May 15, 1959. A considerable reward has been offered, subject to usual conditions, but there has been no response. Anyone with information about these two paintings is asked to contact IFAR.
However, restitution efforts initiated by German politicians have not been free of controversy, either. As the German law for restitution applies to "cultural assets lost as a result of Nazi persecution, "which includes paintings that Jews who emigrated from Germany sold to support themselves, pretty much any trade involving Jews in that era is affected, and the benefit of the doubt is given to claimants. German leftist politicians Klaus Wowereit (SPD, mayor of Berlin) and Thomas Flierl (Linkspartei) were sued in 2006 for being overly willing to give away the 1913 painting Berliner Straßenszene of expressionist Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, which was in Berlin's Brücke Museum. On display in Cologne in 1937, it had been sold for 3,000 Reichsmark by a Jewish family residing in Switzerland to a German collector. This sum is considered by experts to have been well over the market price. The museum, which obtained the painting in 1980 after several ownership changes, could not prove that the family actually received the money. It was restituted to the heiress of the former owners, and she had it auctioned off for $38.1 Million.
In 2010, as work began to extend an underground line from Alexanderplatz through the historic city centre to the Brandenburg Gate, a number of sculptures from the degenerate art exhibition were unearthed in the cellar of a private house close to the "Rote Rathaus". These included, for example, the bronze cubist style statue of a female dancer by the artist Marg Moll, and are now on display at the Neues Museum.
From 2013 up to 2015 a committee researched the collection of the Dutch Royal family. The committee focussed on all objects acquired by the family since 1933 and which were made prior to 1945. In total 1300 artworks were studied. Dutch musea had already researched their collection in order to find objects stolen by the Nazis. It appeared that one painting of the forest near Huis ten Bosch by the Dutch painter Joris van der Haagen came from a Jewish collector. He was forced to hand the painting over to the former Jewish bank Lippmann, Rosenthal & Co in Amsterdam, which collected money and other possessions of the Jews in Amsterdam. The painting was bought by Queen Juliana in 1960. The family plans to return the painting to the heirs of the owner in 1942, a Jewish collector.
Approximately 20% of the art in Europe was looted by the Nazis, and there are well over 100,000 items that have not been returned to their rightful owners. The majority of what is still missing includes everyday objects such as china, crystal or silver.
Some objects of great cultural significance remain missing, though how much has yet to be determined. This is a major issue for the art market, since legitimate organizations do not want to deal in objects with unclear ownership titles. Since the mid-1990s, after several books, magazines, and newspapers began exposing the subject to the general public, many dealers, auction houses and museums have grown more careful about checking the provenance of objects that are available for purchase in case they are looted. Some museums in the United States and elsewhere have agreed to check the provenance of works in their collections with the implied promise that suspect works would be returned to rightful owners if the evidence so dictates. But the process is time-consuming and slow, and very few disputed works have been found in public collections.
In the 1990s and 2000s, information has become more accessible due to political and economic changes as well as advances in technology. Privacy laws in some countries have expired so records that were once difficult to obtain are now open to the public. Information from former Soviet countries that was previously unobtainable is now available, and many organisations have posted information online, making it widely accessible.
In addition to the role of courts in determining restitution or compensation, some states have created official bodies for the consideration and resolution of claims. In the United Kingdom, the Spoliation Advisory Panel advises the Department for Culture, Media and Sport on such claims. The International Foundation for Art Research (IFAR), a not-for-profit educational and research organization, has helped provide information leading to restitution.
In 2013 the Canadian government created the Holocaust-era Provenance Research and Best-Practice Guidelines Project, through which they are investigating the holdings of six art galleries in Canada.
In early 2012, over one thousand pieces of artwork were discovered at the home of Cornelius Gurlitt, the son of Hildebrand Gurlitt, of which about 200-300 pieces are suspected of being looted art, some of which may have been exhibited in the degenerate art exhibition held by the Nazis before World War II in several large German cities. The collection contains works by Marc Chagall, Otto Dix, and Henri Matisse, Renoir and Max Liebermann amongst many others.
In January 2014, researcher Dominik Radlmaier of the city of Nuremberg announced that eight objects had been identified as lost art with a further eleven being under strong suspicion. The city’s research project was started in 2004 and Radlmaier has been investigating full-time since then.
In Walbrzych, Poland two amateur explorers — Piotr Koper and Andreas Richter claim to have found a rumored armored train that is believed to be filled with gold, gems and weapons. The train was rumored to be sealed in a tunnel in the closing days of World War II before the collapse of The Third Reich. Only 10% of the tunnel has not been explored because much of the tunnel has collapsed. Finding the train will be an expensive and complicated operation involving a lot of funding, digging, and drilling. However, to support their claims the explorers said experts have examined the site with ground-penetrating, thermal and magnetic sensors that picked up signs of a railway tunnel with metal tracks. The legitimacy of these claims have yet to be determined, yet the explorers are requesting 10% of the value of whatever is within the train if their findings are correct. Poland’s deputy culture minister, Piotr Zuchowski, said he was “99 percent convinced” that the train had finally been found. But scientists claim that the explorers findings are false.