15 October 2013

Read the book: "Museum of the Missing Art"

In the book Museum of the Missing, Simon Houpt discussed many art crimes over the centuries, including the thefts from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990, the Iraq National Museum in 2003 and Oslo’s Munch Museum in 2004. I was most interested to see if Houpt could add some light to the Nazi looting of central and eastern Europe, before and during WW2.

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'd 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

In France I thought the Nazis would have been reluctant to denude the German-friendly Vichy Government of its prized possessions. But France was the centre of the art world at the time and as soon as the Germans invaded in 1940, confiscations began. The primary Nazi agency for looting and transporting art in France was the special task force Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg. That organisation settled into the Jeu de Paume museum in Paris through which 22,000+ art objects from French private collections ended up in Nazi hands. For the years 1940-44, the Jeu de Paume Museum  became a camp for confiscated works of art.

After the war, Jeu de Paume: Project for the Documentation of Wartime Cultural Losses was dedicated to the historical reconstruction of the Nazis' seizure of Jewish cultural property in France. The naming was perfect.

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

The presentation of material in Houpt’s book is very visual and is beautifully reproduced, as befits art history. It is one thing to hear that the central panel of Dieric Bouts' Altarpiece of the Holy Sacrament was a huge work that was hidden in some remote salt mine in Austria during the war. It is another thing seeing the restored painting in all its glorious detail, back 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.


Hermes said...

These posts on the thefts are so interesting, thanks. The film Monument Men sounds good too.

Mandy Southgate said...

Another fascinating piece, Hels. From my own point of view, I see the theft of art and the destruction of culture and heritage to be an integral part of the act of genocide. The Germans ultimately intended to destroy European culture and create a single Arryan nation, did they not? Perhaps it is a stretch but I imagine the art lovers amongst the ranks were quite aware that the future world order would not be one of culture and art galleries.

Pat said...

From our lectures, I most enjoyed the comparison between the "Great German Art Exhibition" in the Munich Haus der Kunst and the "Degenerate Art" exhibition in an old Munich laboratory. That contrast said everything about Party-approved taste.

Hels said...


I agree totally. Read Edsel, Robert The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History, Hachette Books, 2009.

I have an old post on those men and their mission, plus links to two other art history blogs: http://melbourneblogger.blogspot.com.au/2009/09/plunder-of-arts-monuments-men.html

Hels said...


the Nazi leaders were avid art collectors and protectors, but only of traditional Germanic-type art that showed heroic soldiers or loving families. So the thefts had a dual purpose - to rid Europe of degenerate modernism and to save good art.

After the war they planned on wonderful national and private art galleries, filled with the good art.

Hels said...


I loved the idea of the Great German Art Exhibition in Munich... even though the art in the Degenerate Exhibition was much more interesting. The Great German collection spelled out visually and in text what the cultural war was all about.

Haus der Kunst was also worth examining as being culturally approved.

William said...

Hi Helen!

Here is an online podcast series which has just been announced by the Boston Globe and Boston's premier National Public Radio news station WBUR.

WBUR and The Boston Globe have joined forces to ask why, 28 years later, this still unsolved crime exerts its irresistible pull. With a $10 million reward on offer, how is it that not even a single piece in a haul estimated to be worth half a billion dollars has surfaced? Gone in 81 minutes, the Gardner loot ¬ and the thieves who made off with it ¬ remain at large.

With first-ever interviews, unprecedented access and over a year of investigative reporting, Last Seen takes us inside the ongoing effort to bring back the jewels of the Gardner collection. http://www.wbur.org/lastseen/

I don't know if this topic still interests you, but the podcasts are likely to be very well produced.


Hels said...

Many thanks, Will

It was such a strange and unresolvable case, I am still fascinated decades later.

Joe is a podcast fan because they always seem to be very well done (in the topics of his choice).