steal, conceal, & no deal : Blood Canvas

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.

Allied troops in 1945 discovered art looted by the Nazis and stored in a salt mine near the German village of Merkers. Among the paintings:?Manet's In the Winter Garden (Photo: National Archives).

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.

"In this undated photo released by the Toledo Museum of Art, "Nereid Sweetmeat Stand" is shown. The Ohio museum is returning to Germany the 18th-century porcelain centerpiece believed to have been stolen from a castle where it was hidden by a museum during World War II. The Toledo Museum of Art and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said Thursday, Dec. 23, 2010 that "Nereid Sweetmeat Stand" will go back to the Dresden Museum. Read more:

…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.

"Even before the war, the Nazi leadership had an extraordinary penchant for stealing artistic and cultural objects by state decree. As the Reich's Jewish citizens were by stages disenfranchised, pauperized, driven out, and rounded up to be murdered, the Nazis took great care to seize any works of art in their possession. Vast bureaucracies were created to accumulate, evaluate, and relocate the millions of objects, a chilling story detailed in Lynn Nicholas's The Rape of Europa, and in Robert M. Edsel's Rescuing Da Vinci. It was, Edsel wrote, "the most thorough and extensive looting operation in history." Works by Modern or Jewish artists—Picasso, Gauguin, Chagall, and Kandinsky among them—were declared "degenerate" and sold on the foreign art market to bolster the Reich's treasury. Works favored by Hitler—he especially loved pastoral scenes painted by the Dutch masters—were reassigned to the führer's planned museum in Linz or to the walls of senior officials' mansions. "

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.”

American 3rd Army recovers stolen Nazi art. 1945. ---The Soviets took a decidedly vengeful approach to cultural objects as their armies overran the eastern Reich in 1944 and 1945. The Nazis would be made to reap what they had sown. At first, Red Army commanders focused on recovering looted Soviet properties, which they found in enormous caches as they recaptured western Russia and Belarus, Poland. But as the scale of German looting became clear—priceless objects from the Catherine Palace and Pavlovsk were found in barracks, cafeterias, and officers' quarters throughout the Baltics—the mood turned darker. As armies advanced into Poland and Germany, special Trophy Commission units were dispatched to gather valuable movable objects of all kinds before general looting by regular soldiers commenced. In Berlin, they raided museums and repositories, starting with those in sectors that would soon be turned over to their Western Allies. Some 2.5 million objects were loaded aboard special trains bound for the Soviet Union, including masterpieces by Renoir, Manet, and Goya and the famous Priam's treasure of ancient Troy. Russia later returned more than a million objects to Communist East Germany, but many thousands of others remained hidden for decades in museum vaults in and around Moscow. The dispute over what has come to be called "Russian Trophy Art" heated up in 1995, when the Pushkin Museum in Moscow and the Hermitage in St. Petersburg revealed hundreds of seized paintings they had secretly kept in storage for half a century. The works included many assumed destroyed and one Renoir previously unknown to the art world. Germany demanded the paintings be returned, citing a bilateral 1990 treaty in which both parti

ad promised to restore war booty to its rightful owners. The Russians flatly refused.---

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.

"Reaction to the announcement that the paintings might not be permitted to be returned was intense in Austria where newspaper articles suggested that the United States was forcing "the art world into a banana republic" and that the action was a "heist." One story said that "if German museums that lost numerous paintings during World War II were to sue the present day owners American and Swiss museums would be forced to close complete departments." On January 13, 1998, Die Presse of Vienna reported that Sabine Fehlemann, director of the Van-der-Heydt Museum in Wuppertal, Germany, recently discovered - as a result of a fax mistakenly sent to her - no less than 1,000 works of art in the Louvre Museum in Paris that had once been owned by Austrian and German museums. These works of art, including paintings by Renoir, Corot, Delacroix, and Ingres, had been removed from Germany to France in 1945 and had never been returned. "

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.

"The Dutch government has returned dozens of stolen antiquities back to Iraq. The 69 pieces include cylindrical stone seals older than 2000 B.C. and a terra-cotta relief depicting a bearded man praying. “These things should not be bought and sold,” said Diederik Meijer, an archaeologist with the Dutch National Museum for Antiquities, which will display the treasures before they are returned to Iraq. Meijer declined to put a value on the artifacts, saying it could encourage illegal trade.---

…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. …

Woodward:On the Eastern Front, the Nazis were more brutal. Convinced that the Slavic race was inferior, Hitler intended to eliminate its culture and reduce Poles, Ukrainians, and Russians to a slave caste within the Reich. (Jews were to be exterminated.) In addition to confiscating art, in these countries the Nazis attempted to erase the cultural memory by demolishing monuments and stripping palaces, cathedrals, and museums. During the occupation, Warsaw was systematically destroyed, block by block, its libraries burned, and the Royal Palace dynamited. (In 2007 Poland demanded $20 billion in compensation for the lost and stolen artifacts alone.) In the Soviet Union, German troops sacked Leo Tolstoy's estate, Yasnaya Polyna, desecrating his grave and burning his manuscripts in their stoves. Soviets estimated the Germans looted and destroyed more than 400 museums, 2,000 churches, and 43,000 libraries in their country. "No historic or artistic treasures in the East," German field marshal Walther Reichenau had decreed at the outset of the invasion, "are of any importance." Even so, Russia now estimates some two million works of art were stolen by the Germans during their short-lived occupation of western Russia.

( 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.”

---Much looted art was recovered and restituted. However, despite the efforts of the American and other governments, many thousands of pieces of art were never recovered by their rightful owners. As late as 1994, 16 of the 40 top paintings were still missing. This past March, Philip Saunders, editor of Trace, the stolen art register, stated that "there are at least 100,000 works of art still missing from the Nazi occupation."---

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. …

---The legal ramifications of cases such as this can drag on for years. Several decades ago, a Brooklyn lawyer, Edward Elicofon, acquired two portraits by Albrecht Durer only to have to relinquish them after very lengthy court battles to a German city from which they had been taken during World War II. The issue of the repatriation of cultural treasures is a thorny one for the art community and is not likely to be resolved any time soon. ---

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“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)

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…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.

Kelly Garrow

Toledo Museum of Art

Toledo Museum of Art:

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