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Reclaiming Nazi Plunder

March 17, 2020

by: Kathy DeGagne, BFP Staff Writer

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In 2006, an exquisite painting by Gustav Klimt sold for the staggering sum of US $135 million. The painting was owned by Maria Altmann, a Holocaust survivor who was born in Vienna and escaped to Los Angeles during the war. It was a portrait of Altmann’s aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer, decorated in gold and silver leaf, and often referred to as the “Woman in Gold.” Adele’s husband, Ferdinand, had left the painting to his niece, Maria, and her two siblings. In 1941, the Nazis stole the painting and five other Klimt paintings when Ferdinand was forced to flee Austria, leaving behind his art collection. The pictures ended up in the state gallery in Vienna. The gallery refused to acknowledge that the paintings were stolen, and the legal battle to get back the paintings took the family eight years in the American and Austrian courts. The movie Woman in Gold portrayed the challenges faced by the family to restitute their paintings. Maria eventually won her case, but this episode, among other restitution cases, highlighted to the world that the issue of Nazi-looted art could no longer be swept under the rug and needed to be addressed urgently.

Pillaging European Jewry

During the dark decade of 1935 to 1945, in addition to the genocide of 60% of European Jewry, Hitler’s hordes pillaged Jewish cultural heritage with systematic fervor. They especially targeted wealthy Jewish art collectors and families.

Many Jews were coerced into selling their collections at a fraction of their value in exchange for funds to flee the country. Some artworks were stolen from private homes; some were looted from personal and national collections; and some were simply abandoned as Jewish families fled Nazi occupation. The Nazis were careful to make it appear as though the seizures were legal, depriving fleeing Jews of their citizenship, then declaring all their property “ownerless” and thus subject to takeover by the German state. In the Bloch-Bauer case, the family had their art collection confiscated for a contrived charge of “tax evasion.” Virtually 20% of Western European art was stolen, including paintings, sculptures, porcelain, gold, silverware, Judaica and other cultural artifacts.

The extent of the theft was monumental, estimated at about 650,000 pieces. Even before Hitler invaded Austria and Czechoslovakia, he intended to steal the cultural wealth of Europe. He planned to build an art gallery in his hometown of Linz, Austria, called the Führermuseum, and develop the city into the cultural center of the Third Reich. Though the museum was never built, the artwork it was intended to house came from every corner of Europe to Hitler’s storehouses in Germany. Hitler eventually decided to plunder worthless items as well as ones of value, hoping to eradicate all traces of the Jewish people.

Tracking Down the Art

Many unscrupulous art dealers of the time turned a blind eye to the suspicious provenance of the looted art, and from there things got murky as the works were passed indiscriminately from auction houses to private Nazi collectors and even to collectors in the US. Many of the works remained for decades in the collections of unsuspecting galleries who had little inkling that their inventory contained stolen items.

As the war neared its end and the Allies closed in, Hitler hid thousands of paintings, statuary and gold bullion in the salt mines of Austria and Germany, and in castles, tunnels and remote storage facilities in the countryside. Most of these stashes were uncovered by the Allies, but the attempt to restitute the items was staggering in its complexity. American and British servicemen and women from the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives division of the US military—experts in the fine arts—were commissioned to preserve Europe’s cultural treasures in a war zone. After war’s end, the “Monuments Men” restituted thousands of artworks to their original countries of origin but left it up to those nations to restore the items to their rightful owners. For the most part, that job was left undone and the art remained in state collections.


After the war, many of the survivors were in no condition to recover their possessions. They were fully occupied with recovering from the horrors of war themselves. Elie Wiesel addressed the Washington Conference, a forum convened to deal with Nazi-looted art in 1998. He explained that restoration was a biblical imperative, and that in the years immediately after the war, the survivors “had to adjust to freedom, life and death—normal death” rather than deal with recovering their belongings. Those efforts were now left to their children and grandchildren. Forty-four countries attending the conference agreed to a list of principles designed to help survivors in the process of restitution.

Robert Edsel is the founder of the Monuments Men Foundation for the Preservation of Art in Dallas. Edsel’s team of present-day Monuments men and women is determined to recover and restitute the remaining missing works of art. They have recovered a number of stolen documents, books and paintings to date, yet a reported 100,000 pieces remain missing or have not been restored to their rightful owners. Sadly, much of the art is “orphaned,” as entire families were killed in the death camps with no survivors. Some of the art was even claimed by the families of Nazi officers who had originally stolen the paintings.

As the time between theft and recovery gets longer, depending on the country of their claim, heirs must often prove that their ancestor was “wrongly dispossessed” under Nazi persecution, and their claim is sometimes barred by the statute of limitations. Yet most governments are now recognizing the rights of original owners who lost their possessions “under duress.” Museums and galleries are also identifying any items in their collections that have suspicious gaps in their provenance between 1933 and 1945. Many countries have recently established commissions that handle claims of restitution, helping to advance the process of rectifying a historical wrong.

Photo Credit: "Woman in Gold, Adele Bloch-Bauer I" Public domain/commons.wikimedia.org

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