Nazi Looted Art: Lost and Found

As the war wound to a close, the Monuments Men had found hundreds of thousands of pieces of art that had been stolen from its rightful owners.  The question that comes next is “what happened to what they found?”.  I wish that it was the simple answer of “they returned it to the rightful owner”, but that is not the case.  Art was looted from so many different places, museums, dealers and collectors, most of them Jewish and many of them unable to claim their property, and not all pieces had records to find the owners.

The logs kept by Rose Valland from the Jeu de Paume proved invaluable to the Monuments Men, but they only covered art from that one museum.  Other items bore family names or crests that showed who the owner was, in some cases there was a paper trail left by the Nazi’s as they had “purchased” the paintings at greatly reduced value as the owner fled the country.

Even today the Louvre museum in Paris has 1,752 pieces of Nazi looted art.  It’s not a secret that they have the art, however they are currently displaying over 100 pieces of it in an attempt to find the rightful owners’ family.  This is a first since 1945.  Even though the art is being shown in a dedicated space, it begs the question: is it too little too late?  In 1999 a commission was founded among 44 of the worlds nations to examine claims of reparations to families of Nazi victims.  In 2015 the French government began to work with noted genealogists to locate heirs of victims, so that they could return the families property.  However, the scary fact remains that since 1951 only 50 Nazi looted pieces of art have been returned to the victims and their families.

Returning the Art

Monuments Men remained in Europe until the end of 1945, emptying stashes that they had found and even finding new ones.  Slowly the story began to unfold that the art had been stolen from many, many sources.  The Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR) established in 1941 was the official “looting” branch of the Nazi government, and fortunately, they kept excellent records.

Nazi Party headquarters, Munich.

Monuments Men James Rorimer secured the Nazi Party headquarters in Munich to store and sort the art that had been recovered.  This allowed the team to sort through the ERR paper work to figure out who the original owners were.  The sad part was that as 1945 drew to a close, and allied troops went home, there was no time to find the owners, even if they were still alive.  Everyday new survivors from concentration camps returned home to find home either destroyed or completely looted, not just by the Nazi’s but also their neighbors.  And unfortunately, millions never returned home.  The Monuments Men sorted the art by country and returned it to the government of that country, the sad part of this being that many of the governments were still very anti-Semitic and did not return the art to the families, but put it on display in national galleries.

As the decades passed, survivors learned that their family’s legacies where hanging in prestigious galleries, such as Austria’s Belvedere Gallery, and these families want them back.

Getting Back Their Heritage

Even now, in 2018, courts in America and Europe are trying cases of Nazi looted art.  These court case take years to settle, if they ever settle and thousands of dollars to pursue.  The Rothschilds family was luckier than most, as thanks to the records of the ERR a number of their pieces were returned just after the war.  Most families were not so lucky.

The Dancing Maidens, New York. Copy from cast.

In the June 2018 issue of Smithsonian magazine there is an article that talks about the sculpture known as the Three Dancing Maidens by German sculptor Walter Schott.  The work was commissioned by Jewish publisher Rudolf Mosse to go outside his Berlin mansion.  However, when the Nazi’s came to power the piece was “sold” and over the course of the years, sold many more times.  There is a German law that says that if a person buys a piece of possibly looted art, but they buy it from a reputable source and don’t believe that it has been stolen, then it is theirs.  It is a dishonest law at the very least.  And currently the piece sits outside a posh German hotel, and the hotel owner refuses to let art historians evaluate it for legitimacy (there are several copies of this statue), makes it very easy to conclude that the piece was stolen and that the hotel is possibly aware of it.

Portrait of Wally by Egon Schiele was a twelve-year court case (1998-2010) between Lea Bondi and the Leopold Museum of Austria.  Mrs. Bondi, an Austrian Jewish art collector, sold the painting that she had acquired in 1925 to Friedrich Welz, as Nazi, as she was fleeing Austria for England.  She survived the war and contacted Schiele expert Dr. Rudolf Leopold to inquire as to what had happened with her painting.  He advised her that it now hung in the Belvedere Gallery in Austria and that they would never give it up, they would however trade her for it by giving her several lesser paintings.  Dr. Leopold called Mrs. Bondi “greedy” for seeking the return of her property.  After several years of going through motions and appeals the case finally came to court in the United States in July of 2010.  Sadly, Mrs. Bondi would not live to see the case go to court.  However, the Belvedere Gallery reached a settlement of $19 million dollars with her heir, Andre Bondi.

Rue Sainte-Honore, Apres Midi, Effet de Plui by Camille Pissaro

Rue Sainte-Honore, Apres Midi, Effet de Plui by Camille Pissaro was owned by Lilly Cassirer and her husband.  Lilly and her husband were Jewish and the Nazi’s seized the painting as they fled Germany, the couple were forced to sell the painting at a very low price in return for their freedom to flee Nazi Germany.  The painting was lost after the war.  Lilly sought repatriations from the German government for forcing her to sell her painting, in the settlement with government Lilly had the stipulation added that if the painting were to ever resurface it would be returned to her.  In 2001 the painting was found in Madrid, Spain, in the Thyssen-Borenmisza Museum.  Lilly’s heir, Claude Cassirer, has been in court for almost twenty years trying to get back his families stolen art. The museum has contended that since they have had the painting since 1993, it is theirs and that it was the responsibility of Cassirer’s heirs to find it, not the museums.  Through a series of appeals, on July 10, 2017 the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that Spanish law does not apply and the case will move on to trial.  I hope that as Abraham Lincoln once said “right makes might” and the family has their stolen art returned to them.

Jewish Baron Mor Lipot Herzog was a Hungarian art collector who had amassed a large collection of art ranging from El Greco to Lucas Caranch the Elder (Goerings favorite).  For years the collection was held in the Baron’s home in Hungary and when he passed away in 1934, it was left to his family.  When the Nazi’s began to pass the property laws against Jewish citizens, the Herzog family was forced to try and hide the collection.  It was eventually seized and many pieces were sent to the headquarters of Adolph Eichmann.  When the war ended and the art was returned to the family, the now communist Hungarian government seized the art work to be “on loan” to the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest.  After the fall of the Iron Curtain, it was impossible to trace ownership of art work.  Herzog heirs, David de Csepel, Angela Maria Herzog and Julia Alice Herzog, have been in court since 2010 fighting with the Hungarian government over the family’s art collection.  Again, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled in favor of the heirs and the case will be tried in the United States.

Parting Words

These are just a few of the hundreds of court cases over Nazi looted art in courts all across the United States and Europe.  Families who not only lost loved ones and future generations, are having to fight, again, for their family’s property.  To me, this is morally reprehensible.  After having survived the horrors of fleeing their homes, concentration camps, separation and death, these families should not have to continue to fight for their own property.  The museums who have the art, the private collectors who have it and those hiding it in safe deposit vaults, need to do the right thing and give it back.  It wasn’t theirs to begin with and it never really will be theirs, it will always be- stolen.

If you enjoyed this series, I encourage you to check my archives and read past blogs.  I also encourage you to follow me via email or WordPress so that you will be alerted to each new post.  See you next week.