Art Looting Records and Research at the National Archives
National Archives Assembly Presentation
April 17, 2001
During the 1933-1945 period the Nazis stole, or acquired through duress, hundreds of thousands of pieces of art work. Some of the "looted" art was destined for Hitler's proposed museum in Lintz, some for the personal collections of top Nazis, and others were sold to raise capital to be used to acquire other art works or to support the Nazi war machine and its leaders.
The Allies knew about the art thefts and spent considerable energies in the identification and recovery of the art. Much of the efforts took place during 1944 and 1945 when the State Department, Treasury Department, and the Foreign Economic Administration launched the Safehaven Program to identify and recover looted assets, including art. The President established the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historical Monuments in War Areas in 1943 to coordinate the protection and recovery of art. Assisting the Commission and the three agencies engaged in the Safehaven Program were the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) Art Looting Investigation Unit; US military Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives officers; US Army civilian affairs officers; OSS personnel; and others, particularly American foreign service post personnel.
After the war there were major efforts, particularly in Germany and Austria, to recover, manage, and restitute looted cultural property, including art works. But despite the best efforts of all involved, tens of thousands of pieces of art were never recovered and have not been returned to their rightful owners.
Since the renewed interest in Holocaust-Era assets began in 1996, there has been great interest in art provenance and claims research. In fact by the end of 1998, the search for looted art, according to two British authors, "had become the greatest treasure hunt in history." This may be an exaggeration but the search for looted art certainly has become an important activity for auction houses, art dealers, art galleries, and art museums. NARA's holdings relating to looted art have become invaluable to researchers engaged in art provenance and claims research.
In the course of identifying, locating, recovering, and restituting art works, millions of pages of records were created or received by the US Government. Many provenance and claims researchers are familiar with NARA holdings and understand their importance but find them daunting to use, either because they have to travel to College Park to use them or once at Archives II they find overwhelmed by the complexity and vast quantity of the records.
To address the dual problems of great demand for records (and associated preservation problems with the overuse of the fragile World War II records) and the challenging nature of using them, Dr. Michael Kurtz (NW) initiated two programs. In early 2000 he launched a Holocaust-Era assets records preservation/access program that involves some 10,000 cubic feet of records. Depending on the condition of the records and user demand, records will undergo holdings maintenance, conservation treatment, and microfilming. The first project, involving the microfilming of the OSS Art Looting Investigation Unit reports is scheduled for completion the first week of May [it was completed as NARA Microfilm Publication Number 1782]. The second NW program began in mid-August 2000 when NW sponsored an all-day meeting with twenty-five representatives of the art world to discuss NARA holdings relating to art provenance and claims research. Growing out of the meeting was a commitment that NARA would work with the art world to make its holdings more accessible and understandable. The first two projects completed thus far have been the preparation of a detailed list of key series of records and the creation within NARA's Holocaust-Era Assets website of an art provenance and claims section where the detailed list and other information can be accessed.
Hopefully NARA's efforts will not only preserve and protect the records and make them the information in them more accessible and understandable, for both NARA staff and researchers, but will also contribute to the efforts to establish legal ownership of art works that had been looted, and may or may not, have been restored to their rightful owners.