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Hitler Pillaged the World's Art Treasures

By Friday, 29 July 2016 08:44 AM Current | Bio | Archive

During World War II, Adolf Hitler mandated that other nations’ cultural property be stolen for the greater good of the German state and to enrich the Third Reich and its leaders with valuable treasures. Hitler sold hundreds of thousands of artifacts, documents, paintings and sculpture that didn’t symbolize the Third Reich’s ideals, destroyed what he considered to be “bad” or “degenerate” art, and planned to create a vast cultural center-museum — a Führermuseum — in his hometown of Linz, Austria, with what he had pillaged.

Hitler was meticulous in making certain all that he pillaged was hidden and protected, but air raids during the war destroyed millions of dollars worth of his paintings and antiques that we stacked up in his bunkers. “Treasure trains” loaded with gold, documents, jewels, and fine art were taken through tunnels deep beneath the ground to storage rooms, and many were set with booby traps so that thieves couldn’t get to the Nazis’ contraband.

Unfortunately, many of those secret vaults have been forgotten or lost.

Recent research published by the London-based Commission for Looted Art in Europe reveals that America’s Monuments Men, whose “job” it was to find stolen art and treasures in Nazi bunkers and German buildings after World War II and give the assets to people who would return the loot to Jewish victims’ families, did not follow through after they gave up the loot.

Most of the art the Monuments Men distributed was given or sold to the high-ranking Nazis who helped steal it, for a fraction of what it was worth or the recipients kept it for themselves.

The Munich-based newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, recently reported that many state-run Bavarian institutions have kept Nazi-stolen art since 1949. In 1952, when two families tried to recover 160 artworks stolen from their Jewish relatives, they were shocked to learn the U.S. gave Bavaria the art, thinking it would be returned to those it was stolen from rightful owners, but the Bavarian State did not do the proper or ethical thing.

It is well known that sleazy art dealers set up shop outside of Berlin, to sell close to 16,000 paintings and sculptures which Hitler and Goering removed from the walls of German museums in 1937-38. Hitler labeled Modern art as “degenerate” and “garbage” and exhibited the paintings he rejected in Munich on July 19, 1937.

The political goal of The Degenerate Exhibition was to counteract the movement of modernism and over a million people attended the exhibition. Hitler said modernists and the Jewish-Bolshevist community were against Germany and insisted they be eliminated, even though there were only 6 Jewish artists out of 112 included in the exhibit. The art the Nazis kept was defined as racially pure, easily understood, with images of people who exemplify the German race.

Art dealers running The Degenerate Exhibition found it difficult to sell its paintings after Hitler labeled the art “rubbish,” so in March of 1939, to stimulate publicity, the art dealers set fire to 1,004 paintings and sculptures, causing a public outcry. The propaganda stimulated the Basel Museum in Switzerland to rush in and spend 50,000 Swiss francs on art that didn’t get destroyed, while much of it simply disappeared.

The Nazis plundered cultural property from every territory they occupied. The most valuable objects and masterworks were earmarked for Hitler's never-realized Führermuseum, while other pieces went to other high-ranking officials or were traded to fund Nazi activities.

Hitler's passion for art and his rigid judgments shaped Nazi policy. Hundreds of thousands of stolen artworks were shipped to Germany as a means of glorifying the fatherland and Hitler kept a wish list of art he wanted to take from countries he planned on invading, and although he appreciated great art, he systematically set out to decimate the “inferior” Slavic cultures of Poland and Russia by ordering the destruction of most of their art, architecture, monuments, and libraries.

He had no conscience.

Nazi armies rounded up artworks by the truckload throughout Europe. Some went to the private collections, while others were earmarked for Hitler's ultimate cultural fantasy — his museum in Austria. His goal was to create a cultural center grander than Paris or Vienna, but his imagined city and glorious museum never materialized.

Why did Hitler pillage art from countries, museums and Jewish families? As a young man, Hitler was belligerent and hostile. He flunked out of high school and wanted to become a famous painter, but when he couldn’t pass entrance exams to the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts, he became despondent and angry, and by the 1930s his interest in art was all about attaining power and control.

Up until World War II Hitler painted academic subjects and architectural structures and sold many of his works to pay for necessities. By 1930, he wanted to make certain that segments of society he did not respect would be destroyed and forgotten, both physically and symbolically. He understood that if he erased a culture’s artistic past, then he could reinvent its future, and that, in part, is what drove his obsessive, cruel behavior.

Unfortunately, many masterworks by the world’s finest painters were destroyed in World War II, while other pieces were hidden or sold by the Nazis and have never surfaced again.

The hunt for lost works is far from over. Almost every year, something magnificent surfaces that was plundered by Nazi armies. Unfortunately, museums and collectors who know they have valuable plundered Nazi loot often refuse to give it back to its rightful owners, so the struggle between current owners and victims vigorously continues.

Patricia Jobe Pierce is a freelance writer, art historian, art dealer-consultant, certified AAA appraiser, public speaker, photographer and American art authenticator for museums, auction houses and collectors. She graduated from Boston University with a BFA in 1965, is owner and director of Pierce Galleries, Inc. in Nantucket and Hingham, Mass., and is author of many works, including, "Art Collecting & Investing: The Inner Workings and the Underbelly of the Art World." For more of her submissions, Click Here Now.



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The hunt for lost art is far from over. Almost every year, something magnificent surfaces that was plundered by Nazi armies. Museums and collectors who know they have valuable plundered Nazi loot often refuse to give it back to its owners. The struggle between current owners and victims continues.
art, hitler, lost, museums, nazi, works
Friday, 29 July 2016 08:44 AM
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