American soldiers carry rescued paintings down the steps of Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria, which was used by the Nazis to store thousands of treasures stolen from French collectors, including the Rothschilds. National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, MD.
NEW YORK - The black-and-white images of American soldiers saving history are now history themselves. Amidst the rubble of cities bombed into ruins, men in uniform carry delicate paintings and tapestries that survived the last savage months of World War II. In salt mines that the Nazis transformed into bombproof underground art depots, Allied troops find piles and piles of books from the world’s oldest libraries. At Neuschwanstein, King Ludwig’s Bavarian fairy-tale castle, soldiers in battle gear file out with works of art pillaged from museums and collections throughout Nazi-occupied Europe.
Today these scenes from the operations of the military’s Monuments Museum and Fine Arts (MFAA) program are the stuff of cinema. The Monuments Men, the epic screen commemoration of the work of Allied art historians, artists and professors, co-written and directed by George Clooney, makes its world premiere in February.
George Clooney and Matt Damon bring the heroism of the Monuments Men to life in a feature film that will have its premiere in February. © 2013 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. and Twentiety Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.
It is estimated that five million art objects were looted during the Nazi Era, in the most extensive cultural theft in history. The search continues for hundreds of thousands of objects, some of which surface in the art market, yet the Allied officers of the MMFA succeeded in recovering much of what was pillaged.
“They were the first detectives on the scene,” said Robert Edsel, the film’s producer and the author of several books about culture under siege during and immediately after World War II. “Many of the restitutions that are taking place to this day are the continuing legacy of the Monuments Men.”
Paintings that for generations had been in the Rothschild collections – some of the many treasures that the Nazis and French collaborators looted from Jewish families in Paris – were found packed into the cellars of Neuschwanstein. Crucial for the Monuments Men at Neuschwanstein were 39 volumes of records of the Nazi agency that oversaw art looting. After those journals of pillaging were used to map art recovery, the volumes became evidence at the Nuremberg trials.
At its Old Master Paintings sale this month, Sotheby’s is offering four paintings that the Monuments Men recovered for their pre-war Jewish owners. Among them is a pair of oil panels by Jean-Baptiste Pater; the property of the Rothschild family, they became trophies for Hermann Goering at Carinhall, Goering’s estate in East Prussia. Shipped westward as Soviet troops advanced, they were recovered in 1945 in Berchtesgaden, near Adolf Hitler’s Bavarian headquarters, where a German mob had looted Goering’s train.
One of a pair of oils on panel by Jean-Baptiste Pater, to be sold in the Old Master Paintings sale on 30 January was stolen from the Rothschilds and rescued by the Monuments Men.
For all the triumphs of the MMFA, innumerable objects slipped through the cracks – a haunting reminder of work that remains. Last October, Focus, a German magazine, revealed a secret that police had kept for two years – that Cornelius Gurlitt, the son of a Nazi-era dealer, housed more than 1,400 works of art in his Munich apartment. Another German magazine, Der Spiegel, had issued a warning about unreturned art in Germany earlier in the year.
Two unidentified men stand in a small store room filled with sculpture and other items. National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, MD.
Soon the Monuments Men will get the wide recognition that they earned more than half a century ago. But for Lucian Simmons, Worldwide Head of Provenance and Restitution at Sotheby’s New York, their work has long been of tremendous value and he speaks of the Monuments Men with admiration. “In a way, we’re doing the job that they were trying to do without the internet. For them it was much harder, and they did an extraordinary job.” Simmons has run Sotheby’s restitution department since it was created in 1997 – an auspicious year, as it happens, in the annals of restitution. In December 1997, provenance took on new meaning when two paintings by Egon Schiele on loan to Museum of Modern Art were found to have been looted from Jews in the Nazi era. Dead City III and Portrait of Wally were placed under subpoena in 1998 by New York District Attorney Robert Morgenthau for investigation into whether they were stolen.
“There was the presumption, on all our parts, that nothing could be done,” said the New York dealer Jane Kallir, whose tip to a New York Times reporter triggered an article about the paintings’ origins. “I never anticipated that it would go so far. When Morgenthau seized the two paintings, he basically said that there is a legal basis, even after so many decades, for restituting these works if they can be proven to have been stolen. That is the water-shed moment.” Other claimants, silent for years, would be emboldened.
The Wally case was settled in 2010 – thirteen years later – when the Leopold Museum paid $19 million to the heirs of a Jewish art dealer from whom a Nazi dealer stole the portrait in 1939. In 2006, after litigation in the US and Austria, an arbitration board in Vienna awarded six paintings by Gustav Klimt from Austria’s Belvedere Gallery to the heirs of the sugar magnate Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer. Adele I, a portrait of Klimt’s patron Adele Bloch-Bauer against a gold background – the artist’s most famous painting – sold for around $135 million. Once the pride of the Belvedere, the picture now draws crowds at the Neue Galerie in New York.
“It’s the price, but it’s also the symbolic value that you could have such an important painting which had been mishandled after the war and then come back to the original owner,” said the Bloch-Bauer family’s lawyer, Randol Schoenberg. “Where Wally opened the door to the question, Adele blasted it open and made everybody take another look.”
And it multiplied values of early 20th-century Viennese art. Said Simmons, “Great works by Klimt and Schiele were comparatively rare before 1998, when law and attitudes towards Nazi-looted art began to change. And then a series of restituted masterworks by both Klimt and Schiele came on the art market. So it can be argued that the restitution process has enhanced the reputation of these artsits and of their pre-war patrons.”
In 2011, Gustav Klimt’s Litzlberg am Attersee sold at Sotheby’s New York for $40.4 million. The 1914 landscape belonged to Amalie Redlich, whose wealthy Jewish family, the Zuckerkandls, were patrons of Klimt who lost their property in Vienna after the Nazi Anschluss of 1938. By the time Liztlberg am Attersee passed through the hands of a Nazi dealer into a museum in Salzburg, Amalie Redlich was deported on a trainload taking Viennese Jews to Poland in 1941 and perished.
Gustav Klimt‘s Litzlberg am Attersee sold for $40.4 million in 2011, benefiting the heir of famed Viennese collectors Viktor and Paula Zuckerkandl.
Finding and recovering the Klimt painting took almost 60 years. The picture returned to the family thanks to the persistence of Georges Jorisch, Amalie’s grandson, who was hidden in Brussels during the war years and lived modestly for decades in Montreal. Jorisch died last year at 85, two years after the landscape was sold.
Next month, the Impressionist and Modern sale at Sotheby’s London includes Camille Pissarro’s Boulevard Montmartre, matinée de printemps. The Parisian series work belonged to Max Silberberg, a German-Jewish industrialist who sold it for well below its market value in a “Jewish auction” in 1935 and later died in the Holocaust. The Nazis organised those sales to fund extortionate taxes levied on Jews in Germany after Hitler took power in 1933.
Recovering the Silberberg collection has been a work in progress. A Vincent van Gogh drawing of an olive grove that was found at the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin was restituted to Silberberg’s heirs and sold at Sotheby’s in 1999 for £5.3 million.
Simmons noted that restituted works can have a special power for buyers. “They have a compelling story, and collectors are interested in works of art with a history.”
Families who spend years recovering stolen works can be conflicted about selling treasured objects, Simmons noted. “At Sotheby’s, we have worked with clients who have recovered paintings from museums, and whose reactions to those paintings is so strong that they could not stand to be in the same room with them or see them,” he recalled, although Georges Jorisch “laughed with joy” upon seeing Litzlberg am Attersee for the first time since his childhood. Other families, weighing the prospect of living with an heirloom, faced the realities of dividing a work of art among multiple heirs while bearing the often enormous legal costs of recovering their property. Under those pressures, works of art tend to be sold. “Often the benefit of the funds going to a family outweighs the emotional attachment to a particular work of art,” said Simmons.
Despite a dramatic story behind almost every object, the restitution of World War II losses has often been a pursuit enclosed within the art market. Now, because of the wide publicity surrounding the Gurlitt discovery – not to mention renewed attention to the Monuments Men – scrutiny is on Germany again.
“I think we have to press the reset button. Munich tells us that,” said Edsel, who predicted a resurfacing of displaced art with the deaths of veterans and others who took objects during the war.
Simmons agrees. “There’s so much art out there that’s been displaced.” And as it emerges, his department will continue to build on the work of the MMFA. “Our primary function – as was the primary function of the Monuments Men – is to sleuth out the true history of works of art which come in for sale. Where we find that an artwork was looted and never returned, then we will work with our clients to find a solution.”
David D’Arcy is a journalist, critic and the co-producer and writer of Portrait of Wally, the 2012 documentary film about a Nazi-looted painting.