Prologue Magazine

Nazi Looted Art

The Holocaust Records Preservation Project

Summer 2002, Vol. 34, No. 2

By Anne Rothfeld


Hitler inspects confiscated art

Artworks that were confiscated and collected for Adolf Hitler, seen here examining art in a storage facility, were designated for a proposed Führermuseum in Linz, Austria. (242-HB-32016-1)

Dormant bank accounts, transfers of gold, and unclaimed insurance policies, all taken by the Nazis and hidden primarily in Swiss bank accounts during World War II, are now the subject of economic and financial research. Museums and galleries are researching the provenance of paintings, decorative arts, and sculpture in their collections in order to confirm that none of the pieces were looted during World War II. Although the Nazis were known for their thorough recordkeeping, a significant amount of artwork still is missing and unaccounted for. The Allied armies salvaged many of these German records, but do these records clearly tell the story of an art piece? And what is the story of the Allied attempts to find the owners of more than two million looted art pieces and bring German art dealers and Nazi collaborators to justice?

In recent years, renewed interest in Holocaust-era assets has prompted heirs, art historians, and curators to ask these questions concerning art provenance and claims research. Until recently, very few researchers were interested in economic and financial aspects of the Nazi regime and the war; even fewer in Holocaust-related assets.1 Now, provenance research of looted art has become an important activity for auction houses, art dealers, and art museums.2

The Holocaust Records Project

To address the dual concerns of researchers' demand for records that document the locating and restituting of confiscated art and the preservation problems associated with overuse of fragile World War II records, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) created the Holocaust Records Project (HRP). The project has the task of identifying, preserving, describing, and microfilming more than twenty million pages of records created by the Allies in occupied Europe regarding Nazi looted art and the restitution of national treasures. These materials include documents generated by various U.S. government civilian agencies, U.S. military branches, and the Office of Military Government, U.S. Zone (OMGUS).

The HRP emerged from a meeting in the summer of 2001 between NARA and art historians and curators to identify NARA's key and relevant holdings concerning art provenance and restitution claims research. These records tell the story of Allied programs created in mid-1943 to protect art from being damaged or stolen by the Allied military forces, to prevent art from being used as a financial asset by the Axis powers, to keep Nazi looted art from being sent to a safe haven (somewhere outside of Germany, in the neutral countries or Latin America), and to aid Allied restitution efforts.

The HRP is microfilming documents in more than fifteen different records groups, including Records of the Office of Strategic Services (RG 226), General Records in the Department of State (RG 59), Records of the Office of Alien Property (Foreign Funds) (RG 131), and the "Ardelia Hall Collection" in Records of U.S. Occupation Headquarters, World War II (RG 260). The project's progress can be monitored on NARA's art provenance web page at

Our primary goal is to aid archival research in looted cultural property records and to create specialized inventories and finding aids. Our finding aids allow researchers to narrow their search for archival records and also help to preserve the records by minimizing the amount of handling to which they are subjected. Two additional project goals are the posting of inventories and indexes on NARA's art provenance web page.

The first set of records to be microfilmed are the records of the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in War Areas ("The Roberts Commission");3 the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR) inventory card files; the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFA&A) files; the Cultural Property Claims Applications; and the records of the four temporary collecting points under U.S. Army command: Marburg, Offenbach, Wiesbaden, and Munich.4 The army occupation forces in Germany, Italy, and Austria created massive quantities of records in the process of the recovery, administration, and restitution of looted art and cultural property and treasures. The paperwork involving property claim applications made to OMGUS from individuals and institutions was routed through the collecting point to the object's country of origin. For example, if an object had been taken out of Poland by the Nazis, moved to France, and shipped to Munich, then the claim was made to the Allies by the Polish government. Each European government was to determine ownership of artworks taken from its own country. Also in these records are U.S. Army interrogations and field reports on looted art, including information on the discovery and recovery of looted art, and captured German and French documents containing packing lists and bills of sale. One section of OMGUS records relating to the location and restitution of looted art alone amounts to several million pages.

The HRP's first completed project was the preservation microfilming of selected records of the Art Looting Investigation Unit (ALIU),5 an investigative program formed in November 1944 under the auspices of the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in War Areas ("The Roberts Commission") and the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). These detailed interrogations, also known as the ALIU reports, describe Nazi looting; locations of looted art; German and Nazi attempts to sell looted art; the transport of art into and around the Reich; descriptions and dimensions of specific pieces, with many pieces listing the selling and purchasing prices; names of purchasing agents and auction houses; names and activities of Swiss, French, German, and other European art dealers; and art collections of Nazi leaders.6

ALIU officers interrogated more than two thousand individuals involved in art looting, including such key German and Nazi figures as Heinrich Hoffman, Hitler's chief photographer and art adviser; Ernst Buchner, director of the Bavarian State Paintings Museum; Karl Haberstock, a Berlin art dealer who purchased and sold artworks for Hitler; and Walter Hofer, Hermann Göring's art agent. After gathering intelligence information from their interrogations, ALIU members wrote thirteen Detailed Interrogation Reports (DIRs), then condensed these DIRs to create three Consolidated Interrogation Reports (CIRs).

The CIRs describe in detail the activities of the ERR, the official Nazi office charged with confiscating prominent art collections in France (CIR No. 1, "Activity of the Einsatzstab Rosenberg in France"); the origins of Hermann Göring's art collection (CIR No. 2, "The Goering Collection"); and art collected for Adolf Hitler's planned museum in Linz, Austria (CIR No. 4, "Linz: Hitler's Museum and Library"). CIR No. 3, which was to be written by Jan Vlug, Royal Netherlands Army, regarding German methods of acquisitions, was still pending in 1946 and never completed. These CIRs, used as evidence at the Nuremberg Trials of Hermann Göring and Alfred Rosenberg, also trace Germany's economic and financial growth and decline and the movement of assets within the Reich. The ALIU Final Report for the Roberts Commission was published in 1946.7

Origins of Nazi Art Confiscations

The Nazi Party leadership's interest in art arose early on, and art confiscations began by 1938. The Nazis wanted to rid Germany of art created during the Weimar Republic, the period of 1924-1930, when Germany was a leading European cultural center, especially in the fields of art, cinema, and literature. Weimar decadence aroused Nazi anger, and Hitler began closing art schools in 1933.

Soon after their rise to power in 1933, the Nazis purged so-called "degenerate art" from German public institutions. Artworks deemed degenerate by the Nazis included modern French and German artists in the areas of cubism, expressionism, and impressionism. Approximately sixteen thousand pieces were removed, and by 1938 the Nazi Party declared that all German art museums were purified. State-sponsored exhibitions of this art followed the Nazi purges, clarifying to Germans which types of modern art were now unacceptable in the new German Reich. Soon after, an auction of 126 degenerate artworks took place in 1939 at the Fischer Gallerie in Lucerne, Switzerland, in order to increase revenues for the party. The auctioned paintings by modern masters, many previously purged from German public institutions, included works by van Gogh and Matisse.

Hitler called for a new art, an art that portrayed the Volk and the Volksgemeinschaft (Volk community) as "a realization not of individual talents or of the inspiration of a lone genius, but of the collective expression of the Volk, channeled through the souls of individual creators."8 Hitler wanted new cultural and artistic creativity to arise in Germany, with the "folk-related" and "race-conscious" arts of Nazi culture replacing what he called the "Jewish decadence" of the Weimar Republic.9 According to the Nazis, acceptable and desirable art included Old Flemish and Dutch masters; medieval and Renaissance German artworks; Italian Renaissance and baroque pieces; eighteenth-century French artworks; and nineteenth-century German realist painters depicting the German Volk culture.

Art looting that had begun on an ideological basis became an organized government policy. For Nazi officers seeking social status and promotion within the party, collecting and giving art confirmed one's dedication to promoting Nazi racial ideologies in the Reich. It was a way to emulate Hitler and Göring. Yet some top Nazis deviated from this model. For example, Joseph Goebbles, Reich minister for propaganda, collected artworks by German expressionists, and Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop acquired impressionist paintings by Manet.

The first official rounds of Nazi confiscations began in Austria after the 1938 Anschluss, the annexation of Austria into the German Reich. Art confiscations in Poland began in 1939. Shortly thereafter, Nazi bureaucratic agencies were established in the newly occupied territories and charged with confiscating art. For example, the collections of Vienna's prominent Jewish families were the first to be taken by the Nazis, and Jews who did not plan to leave "Greater Germany" were required to register their personal property with the local police. Artworks soon paid for exit visas and taxes.

Many who were persecuted by the Nazis or who were political opponents did attempt to flee Germany in the mid 1930s. When the Nazis banned the exportation of paper money, wealthy émigrés began to turn their investments into art. Because the Nazis lacked a useable foreign currency, artworks were often used as an alternative to money. As late as 1939, art could be taken out of Germany only as personal property. Art, thus, became cash for black marketers, Nazis and non-Nazis, and for victims of Nazism who used it as a safe, liquid asset. Almost all European art dealers who bought and sold to Germans and Nazis took advantage of their ignorant or ill-informed clients in the occupied areas, and both occupier and occupied exploited one another.

Jews owned many of the well-known art houses, and some were art dealers. In April 1938, Göring issued the "Decree Regarding the Reporting of Jewish Property," which stated that no later than June 30, 1938, every Jew in the Reich was required to assess all property owned, domestic and foreign, and to report these findings to Nazi authorities.10 Jewish business owners were forced to sell their shops and assets to non-Jews, a process called Aryanization. Jewish art dealers forced to leave Germany created opportunities for "a group of dealers, not previously considered to be in the top rank, [who] rushed to fill the gaps left by the departure of their Jewish colleagues and to take full advantage of [the fleeing Jews]."11

Confiscated artworks were often saved for private Nazi and German collections, while some pieces were sold to buyers through neutral countries like Switzerland to raise capital for purchasing additional art pieces and to purchase materials for the Nazi war machine. Additionally, Switzerland offered a large market to sell off "degenerate art." The Paris art market was the most active during the war years. The French auction houses and dealers sold artworks at extravagant, inflated prices to interested German parties. The Netherlands' art riches were the next most popular for art plundering, and the Italian market was also brimming with dealers who took advantage of Germans and Nazis by inflating prices and gouging profits at the expense of their German allies.

As the art confiscations expanded during the war, the Nazis devised a plan to ship the pieces back to Germany and Austria. They began storing the artworks in salt mines and caves for protection from Allied bombing raids. These mines and caves offered the appropriate humidity and temperature conditions for artworks.

Plundering for Göring's and Hitler's Collections

Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring helped establish the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR), directed by Alfred Rosenberg, the official Nazi office charged with confiscating prominent, mainly Jewish, art collections in the western Nazi-occupied territories. Housed in the Jeu de Paume Museum in Paris, the ERR operated from 1940 to 1944.12

In January 1940, Hitler gave Rosenberg his task: to loot Jewish and Masonic cultural treasures, including synagogues, libraries, and archives in western Europe. By fall 1940, Hitler ordered Rosenberg to confiscate all Jewish art collections since these materials were now deemed "ownerless" by Nazi decree. Jews in France, as in most of Europe, were now labeled "stateless" and no longer had property rights. With France part of the German-occupied territories, the ERR and Rosenberg now fell under Göring's authority and control, with the Gestapo seeking out Jewish houses, apartments, and shops in the hopes of finding valuable pieces.

The ERR was the most elaborate of the Nazi confiscating agencies, and it looted more than twenty-one thousand individual objects from over two hundred Jewish-owned collections.13 For every object delivered to the Jeu de Paume Museum, a clearinghouse to process all French confiscations, ERR staff created an inventory card containing the artist's name, medium, dimensions, and in many cases, a photograph. The ERR then organized the cards by codes based on the family's name and a number: for example "R" for the Rothschild family, "D.W." for David-Weill, and "SEL" for the Seligmann family in Paris. On many cards appears a stamp with either "AH" or "HG," indicating if the object was going to Hitler's museum in Linz or to Göring's personal collection at Carinhall (Göring's country house named in honor of his wife, Carin). Suitable materials not selected for Linz or Carinhall were set aside for German museums, and pieces deemed too decadent and modern (i.e., "degenerate") for the Nazis were sold at auction in the international art markets.14

As part of glorifying the German race, Hitler and Göring planned two large art collections: Hitler's proposed grand museum (the Führermuseum) in Linz; and the Hermann Göring Collection, which was a personal collection intended to serve as a personal monument to himself. As early as March 1938, Hitler planned to build Linz as a cultural city to rival that of Vienna.15 Göring considered confiscated property from "enemies of the state" as the main source for his collection.16

Prior to the establishment of the ERR, in June 1939, under Karl Haberstock's influence, Hitler appointed Dr. Hans Posse, the former director of the Dresden Gemäldegalerie, to direct acquisitions for the Linz museum.17 This appointment generated some discussion in party offices because Posse had been relieved as director of the Dresden gallery in 1938 for not being a Nazi Party member. Also, during his tenure as the Dresden gallery director, he had purchased "unsuitable" artworks. He remained Hitler's adviser until his death in 1942. During those three years, Posse expanded the original plans for the Führermuseum, traveled to Austria and Poland to personally recommend and select confiscated fine arts, and "maintained both purchasing agents and special purchasing accounts [for Hitler]."18

In March 1943, Hitler named Hermann Voss to succeed Posse at the Dresden painting gallery and as provisional director of the Linz museum.19 His appointment came as a surprise in the official Nazi circles. Voss "was well known for his anti-Nazi opinions before 1943, and he was never a Party member."20 He had been passed over for promotion due to his "cosmopolitan and democratic tendencies, and friendship with many Jewish colleagues."21 When interrogated by the Art Looting Investigation Unit (ALIU) in 1945 and 1946, Walter Hofer, Bruno Lohse, Karl Haberstock, and Kajetan Mühlmann all "agreed that Voss was competent, but they all [felt] it was strange that a man well known for his anti-Nazi sympathies should suddenly be pulled out of virtual retirement and placed in such an exalted position."22

Between 1943 and 1945, Voss purchased approximately twelve hundred paintings for Linz, mainly nineteenth-century German artists, and "as Posse's successor he inherited a vast store of confiscated works."23

In May 1945, with the European war over, Voss traveled to Wiesbaden, Germany, to present himself to the American troops and offer his assistance in locating and recovering looted art slated for Linz. He was taken into custody and interrogated by the ALIU in Alt Aussee, Austria, from August 15 to September 15, 1945.24 In a signed statement, Voss asserted that he wanted to provide the full account of his knowledge of art confiscations during the war.25

Walter Andreas Hofer began his career as a small Berlin art dealer, and by 1937 he became Göring's chief art adviser with the following agreement: Hofer could remain as an independent dealer while acting as Göring's agent with the right to keep an item for himself if Göring did not like the piece. This arrangement proved to be advantageous for Hofer, who now had Göring's protection and support. Hofer's new status gave him ample opportunity to travel and opened doors to art collections anywhere in the Reich and occupied territories.

Hofer was familiar with the details of Göring's account ledgers, which were separated into different funds: private, separate, and military. The private ledger contained records of Göring's personal fortune from his salaries and estates and recorded the use of the monies for himself and his family's personal expenses. The separate fund supported large receptions and business functions. The military fund covered Göring's expenses as Reichsmarschall and his special train. The Kunstfond, an art fund with an average balance of two million Reichmarks, was to be used for all of the expenses of acquiring and maintaining his personal art collection.

In 1939 Göring had acquired approximately two hundred objects; by 1945 he owned over two thousand individual pieces, including more than thirteen hundred paintings. From the beginning, confiscated property was the main source for Göring's collection. Approximately 50 percent of his collection consisted of works of art from enemies of the Reich. As the Consolidated Interrogation Report No. 2 states:

Göring's attitude towards [Nazi] confiscations was characteristic. He fought shy of crude, undisguised looting; but he wanted the works of art, and so he took them, always managing to find a way of giving at least the appearance of honesty, by a token payment or promise thereof to the confiscation authorities. Although he and his agents never had an official connection with the German confiscation organizations, they nevertheless used them to the fullest extent possible.26

Gifts from friends and other important Nazis to the Reichsmarschall were another source for Göring's acquisitions. With Hofer's assistance, Göring established a sort of art gift registry, listing fine arts that suited his tastes and fit in with the current holdings.27 Göring spent an extraordinary amount of time reviewing his plundered art, especially during the crucial years of World War II, mid-1940 to early 1942. ALIU's Consolidated Interrogation Report No. 2, entitled "The Goering Collection," documents at least a dozen visits by Göring to the Jeu de Paume Museum in 1941 and another five in 1942.28

The ALIU report on Hofer describes him as responsible for developing many of the confiscation methods used to build up the Göring collection. Hofer also used his status to promise protection to those being persecuted in exchange for artworks that he or Göring desired. Hofer kept the collection's records in a meticulous manner by recording the contract of sale for each piece, the piece's market value, and what the piece was sold or exchanged for.29

Nazi Looted Art, Part 2
Nazi Looted Art, Part 3

Anne Rothfeld was an archivist with the Holocaust Records Project at the National Archives and Records Administration.

Articles published in Prologue do not necessarily represent the views of NARA or of any other agency of the United States Government.

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