While some of the greatest artworks had been looted by the Nazis and were recovered after the war, thousands are missing to this day.
Starting in 1933 with the seizure of property belonging to German Jews and continuing until the curtains closed on the European theatre of the Second World War in 1945, the Nazis plundered roughly 650,000 pieces of art from across the continent. While many of these pieces were retrieved, in large part by the efforts of the famed “Monuments Men,” around 30,000 of the looted artworks remain missing to this day.
Adolf Hitler was no stranger to the world of art. He himself was an avid painter and in his youth planned to pursue the passion as a career but abandoned the idea after being rejected from the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna twice. As much as he was a lover of the brush and canvas, he reserved a special kind of dislike for modern art, referring to it as “degenerate” in his autobiographical manifesto Mein Kampf, and condemning such movements as Dadaism, Cubism, and Futurism as being a product of a decadent twentieth-century society.
In 1933 Hitler became Chancellor of Germany and wasted no time incorporating his so strongly felt distaste for modern art into the political system. Drawings, sculptures and classical paintings, such as portraits and landscapes by Old Masters, could stay in Germany’s state museums. All else was to be sold or destroyed. And hence, the great Nazi art heist began.
But the removal of what Hitler deemed distasteful artworks from the nation’s galleries and museums for profit or destruction was not enough for the Nazis. Much like penitent public drunkards, 650 pieces of the confiscated art were first to be exhibited to the public for their mirthful derision. In July of 1937 Die Ausstellung “Entartete Kunst” (The Degenerate Art Exhibition) opened in Munich. The day before to the exhibition’s opening, Hitler conducted a speech that declared “merciless war” on cultural disintegration and went so far as to say that the German art world was afflicted with “a great and fatal illness.”
Though, the Nazis struggled significantly in the sale of the seized artworks. Putting so much emphasis on the inferior quality of the pieces had backfired. On March 20, 1939, in the courtyard of the Berlin Fire Department, close to 5,000 paintings, sculptures, watercolors, drawings and prints were set alight in an act of propaganda similar to the Nazi’s infamous book burnings. As utterly tragic as the event was, the desired result was achieved. Suddenly there was no shortage of buyers for the so-called degenerate art. But it wasn’t solely the eradication, or profit from such art that fueled the great Nazi art heist — Hitler also had plans for a great art museum. The Führermuseum, which was to be located in the city of Linz, Austria, never reached realization, which is ironically unfortunate, because if most of the pieces that had been earmarked for the large museum had been housed there when Nazi Germany fell, it would have made a sizable part of the process of recovery and subsequent return much easier.
Over the Nazis’ twelve-year reign many famed paintings fell into their clutches, including Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I. The painting, also known as The Woman in Gold, was commissioned by Jewish banker and sugar producer Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, the sitter’s husband. The piece was abandoned when Ferdinand was forced to flee the city of Vienna following the Anschluss of Austria — the annexation of the country into Nazi Germany in 1938. It was subsequently stolen in 1941 from the large art collection left behind. After a lengthy legal battle, the painting was sold by Ferdinand’s niece Maria Altmann to Ronald Lauder, art collector and co-founder of New York’s Neue Galerie.
Leonardo da Vinci’s famed Lady with an Ermine suffered a similar fate. In an anticipatory move made as a result from the imminent German occupation of Poland, the painting was relocated from the city of Kraków to the much smaller town of Sieniawa, in hope that it would be safer there, as it had been during the November Uprising (the Russian-Polish war) of 1830-1. Unfortunately, the Nazis still discovered the painting, and it was sent to the Kaiser Friedrich Museum in Berlin. Nazi Governor General of Poland, Hans Frank (also known as the “Butcher of Poland”), noticed the painting housed in the museum in 1940, and requested that it be returned to Kraków.
Consistent with the masterpiece’s history of transiency, it was relocated to Wawel Castle, where Frank’s suite of offices was housed, before being transferred to a warehouse deposit of plundered art in Breslau in 1941. It was then brought back to Wawel Castle and exhibited. But that wasn’t the Lady’s final wartime resting place; it was discovered by Allied troops at Frank’s countryside villa in the small town of Schliersee, Bavaria, near the conflict’s end. It was returned to Poland in 1946.
The Nazis went on to plunder artwork from every country that they occupied, particularly targeting Jewish property, with many pieces ending up in the private collections of high-ranking Nazi officers. In order to help protect precious European art from the Nazi’s hands, the Allies created special commissions, such as the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives (MFAA) organization, whose members would become known to the world as the Monuments Men. Over 1,050 repositories for looted artwork in Germany and Austria were discovered in such places as salt mines, tunnels, and secluded castles. Although many of stolen artworks have been returned to their rightful owners, a high number still remain missing, and every now and again come to light in an unexpected manner.
In 2012, a trove of over one thousand paintings, drawings, and prints were discovered in the Munich apartment of a reclusive octogenarian after he was investigated for suspected tax evasion. Of these pieces, around two to three hundred were believed to have originated from Nazi looting. The large stash, which likely contained pieces exhibited in 1937’s Degenerate Art Exhibition, belonged to Cornelius Gurlitt, son of Hildebrand Gurlitt — a Nazi-associate art dealer. The collection, which contained works from revered artists such as Renoir, Chagall, Cézanne, and Matisse, was confiscated by the German government and subsequently investigated by a large team of international researchers. Fourteen pieces proven to have been looted under Nazi rule have now been returned to their original owners, although surprisingly Gurlitt named the Museum of Fine Arts Bern in Switzerland as the sole heir to the trove shortly before his death in 2014, leading to the remainder of the dubious collection being housed there today.
Even though countless paintings that the Nazis seized during their truly horrifying reign were completely destroyed, it is still quite possible that many that weren’t will someday resurface.