Interagency Working Group (IWG)

Doing Looted Art Research at the National Archives Talk given by Dr. Greg Bradsher

Talk given by Dr. Greg Bradsher
Provenance and Due: A Workshop/Conference
New York University
April 29, 2000

Sponsored by the International Foundation for Art Research and New York University

During and after World War II, the United States Government created large quantities of records relating to cultural property and looted art. At least ten million pages of documentation was created. During the war they created such records for four specific purposes:

  1. to protect, whenever possible, art from being damaged by the Allied military forces;
  2. to keep art from being used as a financial asset by the Axis;
  3. to keep art from being sent to safehaven in the neutral nations, Latin America, and even the United States;
  4. and to help identify and recover the looted art.
After the war the United States Government created records relating to the recovery, administration, and disposition of the art.

During the war these records were created or accumulated by various agencies and organizations of the United States Government; primarily by The American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in War Areas (better known as The Robert Commission), Army intelligence units, military Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives officers, the Office of Strategic Services' Art Looting Unit and other OSS units, and State Department Foreign Service officers. They spent considerable energies and efforts to identify, recover, and restitute looted art works. They were joined by other agencies that were not directly involved, but which created or accumulated records relating to looted art. These included the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Office of Naval Intelligence, the Foreign Economic Administration, the Foreign Funds Control of the Department of the Treasury, the State Department, and the Office of Censorship.

Just to give you a sense of the breath of the information contained in the OSS and Roberts Commission records let me highlight some topics for you. Within the OSS records are intelligence reports dealing with looting; location of looted art; Nazi attempts to sell art; the movement and transport of art; information on specific works of art, often giving descriptions and dimensions of pieces of artwork, and sometimes purchase prices; names of those engaged in acquiring and selling looted art, including dealers, purchasing agents, and auction firms; names and activities of Swiss, French, German and other European art dealers; and the art tastes of Nazi leaders. Also included in the OSS records are U.S. Army intelligence, interrogation, and other reports on looted art, including information about the discovery and recovery of looted art; captured German and French documents, including packing lists and bills of sale; and other reports produced by various foreign and American government agencies. For example, within the OSS records is a copy of a May 1945 40-page report produced by the Foreign Economic Administration on looted art in occupied territories, neutral countries, and Latin America.

The Roberts Commission records consist of similar information as just described. These records are contained in some 100 boxes of records, or some 80,000 pages. Also within the Roberts Commission records are 50 index card boxes divided into different subjects, such at art looting suspects; looted art objects; repositories and collectors suspected of receiving or storing looted art objects; and, firms involved in art looting. I should also note that within the Roberts Commission records is a relatively large collection of records created by the OSS's Art Looting Investigation Unit. Additionally, there are 20,000 photographs.

It can truly be said that a mass of information on art, especially looted art, was created during the war and retained after its administrative purposes had been served. The same can also be said of post-war records. During the decade after the war some of the agencies and organizations I previously mentioned were involved in the looted art business. They were joined by others, including the Army occupation forces in Germany, Italy, and Austria. These particular entities created massive quantities of records in the recovery, administration, and disposition of looted art and other cultural property. For example, in Germany, the Office of the Military Governor US, or OMGUS for short, created upwards of a million pages of documentation related to cultural property. To give you a sense of size, if you spent one minute looking at every page, not taking notes or copying pages, it would take almost 17,000 hours.

It should be noted that various United States military components, such as the United States Counsel for the Prosecution of Axis Criminality, the Office of Chief Counsel for War Crimes, and the War Crimes Branch of the Army Judge Advocate General created and received art-related records in the course of war crimes trials. Additionally, the United States Government captured well over 70 million pages of records from the Germans, some of which relate to looted art.

The United States Government for the past fifty years has created and received records in the course of its business in dealing with the disposition of looted art. Government agencies so involve include, among others, the Department of State's Office of the Assistant Legal Advisor, the United States Customs Service, United States District and Circuit Courts, United States Attorneys, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and American Embassy officers.

The information that was gathered during the past sixty years was created not only by the United States Government, but by foreign governments, foreign and United States private citizens, business entities, and organizations. A large percentage of the records accumulated by the United States Government the past sixty years have been and/or will be accessioned into the National Archives of the United States and administered by the National Archives and Records Administration.

Despite their vastness in terms of quantity and the usefulness of the information with respect to provenance of art works, using archival records at the National Archives has been, is, and probably always will be, a problem for many researchers, especially those use to using libraries and the internet to do their research. Library research is accomplished by subject, internet research is most often accomplished by word, but archival research is done by provenance, i.e., who created or received the document. This can be daunting for some researchers.

So today I thought I would share some tips or general rules for doing archival research on topics related to looted art.

First you must remember that records follow or reflect functions and activities and are not, at the macro level, arranged according to subject; they are arranged by the entity that created or received the records. So you need to know what government agency or agencies are responsible for certain functions and activities. This information can be gained by various means, including, and especially, by looking at published and unpublished National Archives finding aids, and by talking to archivists and others involved in provenance research at the National Archives, such as Marc Masurosky, Willi Korte, Konstantin Akinsha. Of course, sometimes the answer is self-evident as to where records should be and the finding aids can be used with minimum assistance. Other times the answer to where the records should be is not so self-evident.

Second, one must look for the not so obvious. Again this means looking at finding aids, doing reading in secondary literature, and talking to archivists and those people engaged in provenance research. For example the Presidential Advisory Commission on U.S. Holocaust Assets is looking for, among other things, records relating to non-monetary gold, often termed "victim gold." So far Commission researchers have identified records from 15 government agencies relating to that subject; many of the agencies are not so obvious.

Third, one must remember that information is often widely circulated for information or reference purposes. So copies of reports and other documents are often found in places where you might not expect to find it. For example, among the Office of Naval Intelligence records for the World War II period, there is a large quantity of information about art looting. Why? Because the Office of Strategic Services and other pertinent organizations sent copies of their reports to them.

Fourth, to better deal with the first three things I have mentioned, I would urge you to do three things. First, read the secondary literature, both books, articles, and reports. Hector Feliciano, Lynn Nicholas, Jonathan Protropulos, Michael Kurtz, and others have used the records and their citations to records may be a great help. Second, read the reports that either have just been published, or will be published this year; specifically I am referring to the French, Swiss, and American commission reports on looted art. And third, read my 1,100-page finding aid entitled Holocaust-Era Assets: A Finding Aid to Records at the National Archives at College Park. It can be purchased from the National Archives and it is online at our Holocaust-Era Assets research website. The address is It contains not only the finding aid, but also articles and speeches, a bibliography of over 1,000 publications, links to other sites, and listings of newly accessioned and/or declassified records.

Fifth, archivists and the finding aids they create are perhaps your best resource. But, you can help archivists help you immensely if you come to them prepared. And I might add, be prepared to spend a fair amount of time.

One last thought: in using records you must remember that intelligence and investigative agencies and entities often create or receive information about a wide variety of subjects. A substantial amount of the information is raw intelligence data is just that "raw," often hearsay, incorrect for a variety of reasons, as well as pure fiction. And a lot of information, particularly that created during wartime can be quite inaccurate or misleading. Additionally, I should add that the name given to a specific art work is not always consistent.

Archival research, as I have tried to convey, can be a challenge, but it can also be quite rewarding for a persistent and diligent researcher. I believe that once you have used archival resources a couple of times you will find how to navigate through the records and be able to productive in your efforts. The National Archives is a great resource and its staff is there to help you.