As Germany quickly conquered one country after another, the Nazis confiscated the property of Jews in the defeated territories, contending they were not genuine citizens. After shipping the rightful owners into camps, they could then seize this so-called abandoned property. Who would complain? At first the Nazis held the property for safe keeping, but soon passed laws permitting its wholesale theft.
Houpt noted that the Nazi attitude to looting of art varied by region: in Eastern Europe, the Nazis expanded their activities to the cultural holdings of the countries themselves, while in the West they mainly restricted themselves to private property and left state collections alone. This made perfect sense for Hungary, the Ukraine, Czechoslovakia and Poland, but it didn’t make sense for their former ally Italy. Apparently the Germans took about half of Florence’s Uffizi Gallery and Pitti Palace’s incomparable collections back home, to protect the treasures from the rapidly advancing Allied armies.
Vermeer, The Astronomer, 1668,
Hitler wanted this painting, part of the Rothschild collection, for himself. It was delivered to him in 1941.
The painting is now in the Louvre
Here is the question I often ask myself. Why would the cash-strapped Nazis spend untold financial and manpower resources, right in the midst of a financially exhausting and physically grinding war that had demoralised the entire nation? Why did they pay for top quality museum staff to collect, curate and preserve art objects from France? Why did they rent halls, trucks and curators in 14 different cities across Germany and Austria, showing off the travelling Degenerate Art Show? By the end of the war, the German government had spent more than 183 million reichsmarks (USA $800 million in today’s money) on museum staff and rentals. Plus another USA $2-2.5 billion spent on the art objects themselves.
The simple answer is that although these astronomical amounts of money could have been better spent on the war effort and on feeding their own citizens, the Nazi elite specifically chose to throw endless funds at the acquisition of art. The looting of European art throughout WW2 made the Fuhrer the greatest art collector of all time. The collection was so important to Hitler that it was one of the few elements in his last will, dictated on the 29th April 1945. “My pictures in the collections, which I have bought in the course of years, have never been collected for private purposes, but only for the extension of a gallery in my hometown of Linz on Donau”. His museum was to be dedicated to the glory of the German people, for all times!
Clearly some of the art treasures got re-directed, before they reached the Fuhrer. Sometimes his closest and most senior officers, true art lovers in their own right, tucked confiscated art objects into their own collections. Joseph Goebbels, Minister for public enlightenment and propaganda, systematically acquired German Expressionist paintings that had been removed from German galleries, even though those paintings had been declared by Hitler to be decadent and anti-German.
Sometimes the thefts were on a much smaller scale. American soldiers lifted a dozen ultra precious art objects belonging to the German church of Quedlingburg and secreted them in crates on the ship home. Another American soldier stole Durers from Schwarzburg Castle in east-central Germany and sold them to an unsuspecting collector in New York. Russian soldiers took 500 prints and drawings from the German-Dutch banker and art collector Franz Koenigs’ collection, many of them now in the Pushkin.
Bouts, Last Supper, 1464-7,
now in St Peter’s Church Louvain
I have only one or two quibbles with Houpt's book, Museum of the Missing (published by Sterling in 2006). I really don’t enjoy the use of “second person” in formal writing; “third person” is less personal, less chatty and more academic. And I really don’t like the use of colloquial language in formal art history writing eg “crooks” instead of thieves.