Art of The Third Reich - Art Theft

Art Theft

Later, as the occupiers of Europe, the Germans trawled the museums and private collections of Europe for suitably "Aryan" art to be acquired to fill a bombastic new gallery in Hitler's home town of Linz. At first a pretense was made of exchanges of works (sometimes with Impressionist masterpieces, considered degenerate by the Nazis), but later acquisitions came through forced "donations" and eventually by simple looting.

The purge of art in Germany and occupied countries was extremely broad. The Nazi theft is considered to be the largest art theft in modern history including paintings, furniture, sculptures, and anything in between considered either valuable, or opposing Hitler’s purification of German culture. During the Second World War, art theft by German forces was devastating, and the resurfacing of missing stolen art continues today, along with the fight for rightful ownership. Not only did the Reich confiscate and reallocate countless masterpieces from occupied territories during the war, but also put to auction a large portion of Germany's collection of great art from museums and art galleries. In the end, the confiscation committees removed over 15,000 works of art from German public collections alone.

It took four years to “refine” the Nazi art criteria; in the end what was tolerated was whatever Hitler liked, and whatever was most useful to the German government from the point of view of creating propaganda. A thorough head-hunting of artists within Germany was in effect from the beginning of the Second World War, which included the elimination of countless members within the art community. Museum directors that supported modern art were attacked; artists that refused to comply with Reich-approved art were forbidden to practice art altogether. To enforce the prohibition of practicing art, agents of the Gestapo routinely made unexpected visits to artist’s homes and studios. Wet brushes found during the inspections or even the smell of turpentine in the air was reason enough for arrest. In response to the oppressive restrictions, many artists chose to flee Germany.

Before the impending war and a time of simply looting occupied nation’s art treasures, but during the Reich’s efforts to free Germany of conflicting art, authorities of the Nazi party realized the potential revenue of Germany’s own collection of art that was considered degenerate art which was to be purged from German culture. The Reich began to collect and auction countless pieces of art—for example, “on June, 30, 1939 a major auction took place at the elegant Grand Hotel National in the Swiss resort town of Lucerne”. All of the paintings and sculptures had recently been on display in museums throughout Germany. This collection offered over 100 paintings and sculptures by numerous famous artists, such as Henri Matisse, Vincent van Gogh, and Pablo Picasso; all of which were considered “degenerate” pieces by Nazi authorities and were to be banished from Germany. An auction of this magnitude was viewed as suspicious by potential buyers, who feared that the profits would end up funding the Nazi party: “The auctioneer had been so worried about this perception that he had sent letters to leading dealers assuring them that all profits would be used for German museums”. In reality, all of the proceeds from the auction were deposited into “German controlled-accounts”, and the museums “... as all had suspected, did not receive a penny”.

Apart from auctioning art that was to be purged from Germany’s collection, Germany’s art that was considered as especially favourable by Hitler were to be combined to create a massive art museum in Hitler’s hometown of Linz, Austria for his own personal collection. The museum to-be by 1945 had thousands of pieces of furniture, paintings, sculptures and several other forms of fine craft. The museum was to be known as the “Führermuseum”. By the late spring of 1940 art collectors and museum curators were in a race against time to move thousands of pieces of collectables into hiding, or out of soon-to-be-occupied territory where it would be vulnerable to confiscation by German officials—either for themselves, or for the Führer. On June 5, a particularly important movement of thousands of paintings occurred, which included the Mona Lisa, and all were hidden in the Loc-Dieu Abbey located near Martiel during the chaos of invasion by German forces. Art dealers did their best to hide artwork in the best places possible; Paul Rosenberg managed to move over 150 great pieces to a Libourne bank, which included works by Monet, Matisse, Picasso, and van Gogh. Other collectors did whatever they could to remove France's artistic treasures to the safest locations feasible at the time; filling cars, or large crates en route to Vichy, or south through France and into Spain to reach transport by boat. Art dealer Martin Fabiani moved mass quantities of pictures: drawings and paintings to be boarded onto a ship so that the prized possessions were to be in safer keeping on British soil in Bermuda, although when the ship's contents arrived, complications arose over proof of ownership of foreign assets from France. British consuls were wary of exports and carefully inspected shipments from France, after which Fabiani’s assets were relocated to Canada, in the charge of the Registrar of the Exchequer Court of Canada where they were to remain until the end of the war. Similar shipments landed in New York, all in an effort to protect artistic treasures from confiscation, theft, and destruction.

By the end of June, Hitler controlled most of the European continent. As people were detained, their possessions were confiscated; if they were lucky enough to escape, their belongings left behind or in storage became the property of Germany. By the end of August, officials of the Reich were granted permission to access any shipping containers and remove any desirable items inside. As well as looting goods that were to be shipped out of occupied territories, Arthur Seyss-Inquart authorized the removal of any objects found in houses during the invasion, after which a long and thorough search was in effect for European treasures.

Artwork became an important commodity in the German economy: no one in German or axis-controlled countries was allowed to invest outside of the new Germanic-controlled territory, which in turn created a self-contained market. With few options available for investments, art was of great importance to anyone with cash, including the Führer himself, as a safe form of investment, and even in trade for the lives of others. At the height of trading in 1943, art was even used by Pieter de Boers, who was the head of Dutch association of Art Dealers, and the largest seller to Germans in Holland, in the exchange of the release of his Jewish employee. Demand began to increase dramatically, forcing prices to rise, and only furthering the desire to discover hidden treasures within occupied territory.

As exploration continued within occupied France, and by order of the Führer, a list was created which included all of the great works of art in France, and the German Currency Unit began to open private bank units which contained countless collectors' property and possible items on the list. The owner of the vault was required to be present. One particular investigation of a vault was that of Pablo Picasso; he chose a rather clever tactic when soldiers searched the contents of his vault. He packed his own artworks with countless other artists’ works of his collection in a chaotic manner, with the result that the investigators thought that nothing in the collection was significant, and took nothing.

As confiscations began to pile up in massive quantities, the items filled the Louvre, and forced Reich officials to use the Jeu de Paume, a small museum, for additional space, and for proper viewing of the collection. The grand stockpile of art was ready for Hitler to choose from: the Führer had first choice for his own collection; second were objects that would complete collections of the Reichsmarschall; third was intended for whatever was useful to support Nazi ideology; a fourth category was created for German museums. Everything was supposed to be appraised and paid for, with proceeds being directed to French war-orphans.

Hitler also ordered the confiscation of French works of art owned by the state and the cities. Reich officials decided what was to stay in France, and what was to be sent to Linz. Further orders from the Führer also included the return of artworks that were looted by Napoleon from Germany in the past. Napoleon is considered the unquestioned record holder in the act of confiscating art.

Read more about this topic:  Art Of The Third Reich

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