Written by Olivier Guiberteau
It was the greatest art heist in human history. A concerted, meticulously planned operation that saw roughly 650,000 pieces of art stolen from across the European continent, many of which have never been returned.
But of course, along with the art, many of the owners themselves never returned as the Nazi’s zealous plan to cleanse Europe of its Jewish population reached its frenzied conclusion in 1945.
From around 1933, when Germany began to enact its first anti-Semitic laws, to the end of World War II, the Nazis stole roughly 20% of the art across Europe – taken from private collections, world-famous galleries, churches and cathedrals.
It was a staggering haul that Adolf Hitler, a failed art student himself of all things, hoped would one day adorn the walls in his proposed European Art Museum in Linz, dubbed the Fuhrermuseum, and the uber ambitious Germania, a planned fascist mega-utopia that was to replace large sections of Berlin.
The plundering of Europe’s art remains a deeply contentious topic, especially considering how much of it was never returned and must still, therefore, remain in private hands, presumably with families who either had at least some connection to the Third Reich or turned a blind eye to how they were procured.
A Man Scorned
Hindsight gives us an excellent opportunity to look back through the past and connect the dots. Now and again, we find a seemingly tiny, insignificant decision that changes the course of history.
And so was the case for Adolf Hitler’s fledgling art career in 1907. Now, you’d probably have to go to some fairly unpleasant rallies to find any sympathy for the man who would one day go on to lead the Nazi Party and orchestrate the Final Solution, but nevertheless, young Adolf experienced the same kind of problems in his youth as many do today and probably much worse.
His father, Alois, wanted his son to follow in his footsteps and work for the customs bureau, but Adolf wanted nothing of the sought and dreamed of life as an artist. After his father’s death, his mother relinquished control and Adolf left for Linz in 1907 hoping to eventually study art in Vienna.
The two years between 1907 and 1908 were catastrophic for young Hitler as he failed two entrance exams at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna, with the death of his mother sandwiched between. He soon found himself living in a homeless shelter and later moved to a men’s dormitory with his dreams of painting slowly slipping behind him and the anger, resentment and eventually blind-hatred appearing on the horizon. In terms of knock-on effects, you do have to wonder whether Adolf Hitler would have become a tyrannical psychopath had he gained entry to the Academy of Fine Arts in either 1907 or 1908. The flap of a butterfly’s wings or the cross of rejection on an entrance exam can have terrifying consequences further down the road.
Failed Artist/Master Art Thief
It was in Vienna where Adolf Hitler first came into contact with the rabid racism that would eventually consume him. If we jump forward 25 years or so, the slightly pathetic-looking man with only limited artistic merit had somehow risen to prominence and become chancellor of Germany on the back of some truly horrific notions, many of which he set out in his best selling, but angsty and angry to say the least, book, Mein Kempf.
The first anti-Jewish laws came into effect in 1933 with the prohibition of Jews within the civil service but eventually grew to include more than 2,000 separate directives. In terms of our topic today, the most significant was probably the 1938 property registry requiring all Jews in both Germany and Austria to register any property or assets valued at more than 5,000 Reichsmarks ($2,000 at the time and $34,000 today).
This quickly led to brazen and completely open theft in which the German government plundered as they wished. Five per cent of the country’s budget for 1938-39 was made up entirely of wealth stolen from Jewish people, but it wasn’t just money that was being taken. It’s impossible to say how many pieces of art were stolen during this period, but anything of value found in Jewish homes was usually taken, either to be housed elsewhere or sold to buyers through neutral countries such as Switzerland.
Initially, these sales didn’t go very well, probably because the art was almost quite literally dripping in blood, so the Nazis did what they did best and threw a huge art bonfire in which 1,004 paintings and sculptures and 3,825 watercolours, drawings, and prints were destroyed in the courtyard of the Berlin Fire Department. Callous as the act was, it certainly had the desired effect, and art collectors from around Europe began arriving soon after, with members of the Basel Museum appearing with 50,000 Swiss francs to spend, roughly $12,500 at the time and $250,000 today.
Yet theft was only one side of the danger that faced art in Germany and Austria at the time. In was must surely be one of the worst cases of art snobbery, Hitler had long declared modern art, which included movements such as cubism and expressionism, as degenerate art, which he believed to be “an insult to German feeling”, un-German, Freemasonic, Jewish, or Communist. Hitler favoured the old masters, such as Michelangelo, Rembrandt and Caravaggio, but almost anything created during the 20th Century he looked down upon with absolute disdain.
This idea had its roots even before Hitler rose to fame. Social degeneration, as it was known, was seen as the pollution of German and Aryan purity and this was particularly true for anything created in Germany during the Wiemer Republic, from 1918 to 1933, a period that Hitler and his cronies seized upon as the castration of the proud German people.
This concept had been masterfully propagandised through book burnings, bizarre exhibitions around Germany where modern art was hung terribly then mocked through their small captions, and speeches led by the moustached rabble-rouser himself.
Slowly this degenerative art was collected throughout Germany and Austria with the Nazis selling what they could, but destroying the rest, including pieces by Picasso, Dali, Van Cough and Monet.
As Nazi influence across Europe slowly spread, so did this unprecedented art theft. Considering what absolute brutes they were, the Nazis were meticulous and even delicate when it came to removing art and shipping it to Germany.
Poland was one of the first fall and once the dust had settled, the Nazis set their eyes on the Czartoryski Museum in Krakow, and in particular, three pieces housed there; Raphael’s Portrait of a Young Man, Leonardo da Vinci’s Lady with an Ermine and Rembrandt’s Landscape with the Good Samaritan. All three, along with many other works had been carefully hidden, but such was the rigorous searching, they were all found within two months of the invasion and shipped out of the country.
With Belgium’s army surrendering on 28th May 1940, German forces pressed on towards France and eventually art rich Paris, but German art collectors went to work in both Belgium and Holland. Perhaps the most famous piece of art stolen by the Nazis during the war was the Gent Altarpiece painted by Hubert and Jan van Eyck in the early 15th Century – a masterpiece of dazzling effect that has been stolen no less than 7 times since its creation.
Napoleon grabbed it during his heyday, the Germans stole it during World War I, and it was unquestionably near the very top of Hitler’s wishlist. As war broke out, Belgium authorities decided to send the altarpiece to the Vatican for safekeeping. The painting was on its way south, via France, when Mussolini’s declaration of war scuppered the plans and saw this priceless piece of art stored temporarily in the French town of Pau.
The storage was accompanied by an agreement between Belgium, French and German military representatives that the altarpiece would not be moved without the consent of all three parties. This lasted two years before Hitler, with the aid of the French Vichy government, seized the altarpiece and had it transported to Germany.
All around Europe, valuable art made its way back to the heart of the Third Reich after Nazi leaders first took their pick. Hitler and Goering shared the very best between them before lower-ranked officials were thrown the scraps. And what remained, and there was an enormous amount of it, was sent to be stored in various locations in Germany and Austria.
One such site was the famous Neuschwanstein Castle, where 6,000 pieces of stolen artwork were discovered after the war, while the Nazi pleasure-seeking paradise that was Berchtesgaden also saw an enormous amount arrive.
The Monument Men
Shortly before D-Day, allied forces formed a group quite unlike any other. The Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program (MFAA) – later simply and famously referred to as the Monument Men – was a military unit tasked with protecting art and cultural property as the battle for Europe began to heat up.
For some, this seemed like an absurdity when the realities of defeating one of the most formidable armies ever assembled remained so difficult, but it was decided that preserving the continent’s battered monuments, art, churches and cathedrals was vital for long-term peace in Europe.
Approximately 400 service members and civilians from thirteen different countries formed the MFAA, many with backgrounds in the arts. Their roles were hugely varied but often involved entering newly liberated cities and towns to assess the damage done to culturally important sites and if possible make them safe in the short term. These were directives handed down directly by Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D Eisenhower, along with the express prohibition of looting or the destruction of anything that might be culturally or historically sensitive.
The One that Got Away
The Nazis managed to get their hands on some of Europe’s finest works of art during their six-year rampage around the continent, but the Holy Grail was one that got away. Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, now over 500 years old, is without question the most famous piece of art on the planet and in 1939, as war loomed, it was no less desirable.
However, after flattening the ailing French army and taking Paris, the Nazis arrived at the city’s world-famous Louvre Museum to find it virtually empty. This wasn’t exactly new for the Nazis with many galleries and museums around the continent hiding their treasures, only to be later found – but this wasn’t to be the case for the vast majority of the art from the Louvre, including its pride and joy, the Mona Lisa.
In August 1939, shortly after Hitler and Stalin announced their non-aggression pact, Jacques Jaujard, director of France’s National Museums, ordered that the Louvre be quietly closed for three days, on the grounds of carrying out vital repairs, and almost everything inside of significant value be packed up in wooden crates.
Each crate carried a single small coloured sticker that showed the respective value of what was inside; yellow dots for most of the collection, green dots for the works of major significance, and red dots for the greatest treasures. On 28th August, a massive convoy of trucks departed from Paris carrying 1000 crates of ancient artefacts and 268 crates of paintings, totalling over 3600 individual paintings and headed southwest to the Loire Valley.
Their first stop was the Château de Chambord, the largest in the Loire area, where the art was divided up and sent out to more rural locations for safekeeping. The Mona Lisa was first moved to the Château of Louvigny, but it was to be the first of five moves during the war that kept the smiling lady one step ahead of the Nazis and their Vichy puppets. Often carried on an ambulance stretcher and transported in an armoured truck that had been sealed shut to keep the humidity inside constant, it was quite the adventure for the non-descript wooden crate with a small red dot and the mysterious initials L.P.o written so small you could easily miss them.
Its stops included the former Cistercian Abbey of Loc-Dieu, the Musée Ingres in Montauban, and the Château de Montal in southwestern France – the painting’s final location before Paris was retaken and the priceless piece of work was finally sent home.
The Salt Mines
As early as 1943, the Nazis began hiding their stolen art, gold, and antiques. By far the largest and most used sites were two salt mines; Altaussee in western Austria and Merkers in central Germany.
At the mine in Altaussee, the Nazis had begun taking Austrian valuables for safe-keeping in 1943, but the huge mine was soon flooded with stolen goods. By the end of the war, when the mine was breached by the U.S army along with members of the MFAA, the site included 6,577 paintings, 137 sculptures, and 484 crates of other art. This was a blockbuster find that included Michelangelo’s Madonna of Bruges stolen from Bruges, the Ghent Altarpiece stolen from Saint Bavo Cathedral in Ghent and Vermeer’s The Astronomer and The Art of Painting. And yet, it was nearly all lost forever.
Hitler had specifically ordered that the mine be completely destroyed in the event it should fall into allied hands. As enemy soldiers neared, local commander August Eigruber gave the order to bring down the mine and bury the astonishing treasures within, but in an act of true bravery, the order was disobeyed by the local mine administration, the repository officers and the miners, who simply collapsed the doorway but left the rest of the mine intact.
What was found in the Merkers mine may not have had the same big-hitting names, but the amount seized was considerably more. When U.S soldiers entered the mine, they found an extraordinary 48 km (30 miles) of galleries with 400 tons of artwork, 2 million books, and bags containing almost half a billion Reichsmarks.
A vault that needed to be blasted open soon revealed 7,000 numbered bags of gold bars and coins, weighing 250 tons in all. Also found were currencies from across Europe, including a further 2.7 billion Reichsmarks and 98 million French francs (equivalent to €10 billion today).
Repatriation & Restitution
When the Nazis formally surrendered on 7th May 1945, Europe was a shattered mess. With millions dead, vicious retribution underway in many areas, and widespread malnutrition and homelessness, art was understandably not exactly top of the agenda.
But with millions of paintings, sculptures, books, pieces of antique furniture and much more turning up around Germany and Austria, the Allies knew that they needed to move swiftly. Two collection points were set up within the U.S zone in Germany, at Munich and Wiesbaden, where any art found was sent and catalogued.
Some pieces were easily recognizable and could be quickly returned, such as the Veit Stoss Altar of Veit Stoss from St. Mary’s Basilica in Kraków, but for hundreds of thousands of unmarked pieces of art, their path home remained a complete mystery.
Returning the staggering number of stolen pieces of art to their rightful owners, or the descendants of their rightful owners, proved to be a monumental undertaking that is still not complete. Difficulties ranged from simply having no idea who the owners once were to bitter arguments over whether art should be handed back to Jewish families who had legally sold it – albeit under extreme pressure from the Nazis.
There are several museums and galleries around the world which have faced enormous criticism for housing works that may have been bought legally but were done so under dreadful circumstances. One example has been Switzerland’s largest art museum, the Kunsthaus in Zurich, which recently opened an exhibition showcasing the collection of Emil Bührle, a man who became the country’s richest man during the war, largely on the back of manufacturing and selling weapons to the Nazis.
Immediately after the war, Switzerland’s supreme court ordered him to return 13 of his paintings that were deemed to have been looted, nine of which he immediately bought back. But this was just a fraction of the 600 pieces that Bührle amassed during the war, with many uncomfortable questions still being asked over 75 years after the conflict ended.
Roughly 100,000 pieces of art have never been recovered and probably never will. Where they are and what wall they hang on is anybody’s guess, but that doesn’t mean the search is over. As recently as 2010 a huge stash was discovered in the Munich home of a man named Cornelius Gurlitt who turned out to be the son of Hildebrand Gurlitt, Hitler’s art curator in chief. When German authorities stormed the apartment they found 121 framed and 1,285 unframed artworks, including pieces by Picasso, Matisse and Renoir.
It was a staggering find with a reported value of close to a billion dollars. An operation based largely on luck after a fortunate tip-off on a train had filled an enormous gap in the missing story, however, with so much still unaccounted for and the threads of history slowly disappearing, this is the colossal continental art mystery that will never be completely solved.