Prologue Magazine

Nazi Looted Art

The Holocaust Records Preservation Project

Summer 2002, Vol. 34, No. 2

By Anne Rothfeld

 

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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 www.archives.gov/research/holocaust/.

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

Identification and Recovery

The Roberts Commission

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Master Sgt. Harold Maus of Scranton, PA, is pictured with a Dürer engraving, found among other art treasures at Merkers.

In early 1943, the Allies learned of the Nazi art confiscations, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt established the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historical Monuments in War Areas ("The Roberts Commission") to coordinate and promote the protection and recovery of art in war-ravaged Europe, with the understanding that the commission's mission would not interfere with any military operations.30 Named after its chairman, Supreme Court Justice Owen J. Roberts, the commission compiled information on war damage to European and Asian cultural properties and submitted reports to Allied agencies suggesting plans for restituting looted art. The commission was active through June 1946.

Prior to the commission's establishment, beginning in the fall 1942 and as the European war continued, two civilian groups had raised concerns regarding the protection of Europe's cultural treasures. The American Defense Harvard Group, under the direction of Paul Sachs of the Fogg Museum, created and mimeographed lists of European monuments, fine art collections, and archives needing protection. Formed in 1940, this group consisted of fine arts professionals including George Stout of the Fogg Museum and Francis Henry Taylor of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.31 At the same time, the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) created the Committee for the Protection of Cultural Materials in War Areas, under the direction of William B. Dinsmoor, president of the Archaeological Institute of America, and six months later Sumner Crosby became a Roberts Commission representative in London. Dinsmoor and Crosby used the Harvard lists and Baedeker travel guides to prepare maps of European cities and towns that indicated the location of monuments. These maps were later turned over to the Allied air forces to be used in conjunction with Allied strategic bombing over Europe to avoid further damage to European monuments.

In 1942 these two groups approached Harlan F. Stone, Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court and a National Gallery of Art board member, to discuss protecting historical monuments and cultural treasures in Europe. Stone agreed to contact President Franklin D. Roosevelt through Secretary of State Cordell Hull. In a letter dated December 8, 1942, to President Roosevelt, Stone recommended that an American commission be created to coordinate civilian and military efforts to protect historic monuments and cultural treasures in war areas, noting that the Allied nations have a "practical concern in protecting these symbols of civilization from injury and spoiliation."32 Hull agreed with Stone on the importance of the commission. He further explained that the Department of State and the Joint Chiefs of Staff would be notified and have a say as to the function of the commission.

The following April, President Roosevelt responded to Justice Stone, explaining that he felt that any art commission created would need to work closely with the U.S. military branches and he had discussed this matter with the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In Hull's letter to the President dated June 21, 1943, he outlined the commission's functions. It was placed under the War Department so that fine arts professionals could be detailed to military units in order to locate and care for historic monuments in the Allied-occupied territories.33

The next month, July 1943, Justice Stone wrote to David Finley, director of the National Gallery of Art, stating that President Roosevelt approved the founding of the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in Europe. He added that the commission's wartime functions would include providing information to the General Staff of the Army regarding what types of national treasures and monuments to protect.

The letter also proposed that men already enlisted in the armed forces who were "qualified museum officials and art historians . . . could, if desired, be attached to general headquarters of armies on active combat in the European theatre of operation," and these men would "compile, through the assistance of refugee historians of art and librarians, lists of property appropriated by the Axis invading forces." Stone further stated that the American Commission "should urge that the Armistice terms include the restitution of public property appropriated by the Axis Powers [and] where it is not possible to restore such property, . . . restitution in kind should be made by the Axis Powers to the countries from which the property has been taken."34 In August 1943, President Roosevelt established the Roberts Commission under Justice Roberts's chairmanship.

Headquartered at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the commission was directed by David Finley, director of the National Gallery of Art; Huntington Cairns, the gallery's secretary-treasurer and general counsel, served as vice chairman.35 By locating itself at the National Gallery, the commission was able to facilitate liaisons with both the Departments of War and State.36

The Roberts Commission was instrumental in creating the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFA&A) Section of the U.S. Army. The MFA&A officers, popularly known as the "Monuments Men," were charged with protecting cultural treasures in European war zones.37 Equipped with maps, lists, and handbooks provided by the commission, the Monuments Men documented war damage and prepared lists of sites needing protection. After the war, the Roberts Commission played a major role in the U.S. Military Occupation Government (OMGUS) efforts to recover Nazi-confiscated artworks and restitute the pieces to the rightful owners.

Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFA&A) Section

The Monuments Men began their work in Europe in 1944. In March 1945, a special report from the Roberts Commission to the Monuments Men was issued outlining the primary reasons for the creation of the MFA&A. MFA&A officers were to prevent Allied forces in the field "from damaging national monuments and from damaging or looting public or private collections;" to provide aid "to damaged monuments, fine art and archives collections;" and to "only [be] concerned with measures taken for the immediate protection from further damage of monuments and collections."38 Furthermore, the report stated that the MFA&A officers were not responsible for any type of restoration to the monuments.39

Monuments Men, mainly young art professors and museum curators were recommended and hired by the Roberts Commission for their museum experience and art history education. Capt. Mason Hammond was one of the first officers in Europe. Additional Monuments Men joined Hammond in June 1944 specifically to prevent Allied forces from establishing lodging in historic buildings and to inspect and report on the conditions of monuments listed in the Roberts Commission's "Protected Monuments Lists."40 As the European war was ending and the MFA&A swelled to more than eighty officers and men, the Roberts Commission appointed Lt. Col. Geoffrey Webb as chief of MFA&A operations in Europe and adviser to SHAEF (Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Forces).41

One of the MFA&A's greatest challenges in 1944–1945 was keeping the Allied forces from taking artworks and sending them home to friends and family. When the Monuments Men found that using "off-limits" warning signs were not working, they began using white tape, which Allied troops used to indicate the existence of unexploded mines. The MFA&A covered much territory by the beginning of 1945; after examining more than two hundred monuments, they reported that in Germany alone, over 90 percent of the monuments had been hit by Allied bombings, and 60 percent had been destroyed.42 A secondary challenge the MFA&A met was acting over a sort of "lost and found" department of European art, as civilians began to come to them to search for their stolen personal property.

In spring 1945, the Monuments Men discovered hundreds of caves and mines that stored Nazi caches.43 The first mine they investigated was a copper mine outside of Siegen in Westphalia in April 1945, where they found paintings by Rembrandt, Van Gogh, and Rubens. An original score of Beethoven's Sixth Symphony was also among the items found here.44 On April 6, 1945, came the second find: Merkers.45 The Merkers salt mine housed millions of Reichsmarks in gold bars, non-monetary victims gold, and art from more than a dozen German state museums. In May, Patton's Third Army found the salt mine at Alt Aussee in Austria, which housed more than 6,500 paintings for Hitler's museum in Linz and stolen Italian art for Göring's personal collection.46

Another large find in spring 1945 by the U.S. First Army was the salt mine at Bernterode in Germany's Thuringia Forest.47 During the war, the mine had been used as a storehouse of German munitions and military supplies. In a room behind a brick wall and locked door, however, were huge caskets adorned with Nazi regalia. At first the Americans thought they had found Hitler's tomb, but upon examination, they discovered that the caskets held the bodies of "three of Germany's most revered rulers: Field Marshal von Hindenburg, Frederick the Great, and Frederick William I."48 In addition to the caskets, the American troops found German regimental banners, the Prussian crown regalia with the jewels removed, and paintings, including some by artists such as Watteau and Cranach. And in May 1945, Allied troops found confiscations at Berchtesgaden and Neuschwanstein castle, both of which stored hundreds of ERR loot.49

Art Looting Investigation Unit

In early 1944, Justice Roberts, now the chairman of the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in War Areas, met with Gen. William J. Donovan, director of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), requesting that a special intelligence unit dealing with looted art be formed and administered by the OSS.50 Roberts envisioned that this unit would assist his commission and the U.S. Army's MFA&A Section officers. Donovan agreed, and in 1944 the Art Looting Investigation Unit (ALIU), was placed under the control of OSS's Counterintelligence Branch (X-2) because the OSS believed that certain Nazi agents could be using art looting and collaborative activities to conceal their roles as espionage agents.

Both Roberts and Donovan asked Francis Henry Taylor, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, to select as members of this new unit people from the fine arts community in whom he had personal confidence. For Donovan, Taylor, and Roberts, investigating art looting by the Nazis complemented Allied counterintelligence operations that were already compiling information on Nazis who could be a threat after Germany's defeat. Furthermore, they and their agencies were "interested in tracing and preventing the flow of assets to places of refuge where they might be used to finance the postwar survival of Nazism."51

X-2 gave ALIU the name "Project Orion" because members of the unit considered themselves "hunters" of Nazi art thieves and Nazi art collaborators. An OSS directive declared that the ALIU's primary mission was "to collect and disseminate such information bearing on the looting, confiscation and transfer by the enemy of art properties in Europe, and on the individuals or organizations involved in such operations or transactions, as well as be of direct aid to the United States agencies empowered to effect restitution of such properties and prosecute war criminals" and "to establish the pattern of looting and confiscation in its broader aspects, so as to be guided in the promulgation of plans for ultimate restitution."52 Donovan's directive also outlined ALIU's administration, its personnel, its operational procedures, and funding.

In late November 1944, the ALIU was established and staffed by art historians recommended by Taylor. ALIU members were naval officers with fine arts background and "listed as members of the armed forces, but as members of the OSS, they had more freedom of movement than others in the military."53 On June 10, 1945, the ALIU opened its interrogation center in Bad Aussee, Austria, close to the Alt Aussee salt mine.54 Fully staffed, the ALIU consisted of four commissioned officers, three enlisted men serving as administrative aides, and three civilians. The commissioned officers were responsible for the unit's field operations, reporting to the Roberts Commission, and the investigation and interrogation of Nazis and Germans involved in art confiscations.

Reparations and Restitution

The Central Collecting Points

Upon the end of the European war, in spring 1945, Germany was divided into four zones of occupation. The Office of Military Government, U.S. Zone, OMGUS, was established in October 1945 to administer the U.S. occupation zone. In addition to its other postwar duties, OMGUS took control of all looted art pieces within its German and Berlin zones and returned identifiable objects to the governments of the countries from which they had been stolen.55 There were more than fifteen hundred documented repositories throughout Germany and Austria, all storing Nazi confiscated goods. OMGUS attempted to return those pieces not identifiable to their possible country of origin, and items without any claims were turned over to Jewish successor organizations for restitution. The U.S. Allied Commission for Austria section of OMGUS (USACA) was the U.S. representative in Austria, which also restituted confiscated works.

Soon after the Allied forces discovered the mines and caves in the spring 1945, the Allies began the tedious task of moving the objects into central storage areas in order to return each object to its rightful owner. U.S. Third Army officers and troops found the Alt Aussee mine in May 1945, and it took more than two months to empty the mine and ship the contents to Munich. Having found the stolen art pieces, the Monuments Men, with the aid of Allied troops, faced two huge tasks: first, removing the art from the mines or castles and second, transporting the pieces to safe storage areas within the U.S. occupation zone.56 Due to the large number of salt caves and mines containing treasures, the U.S. Army consolidated the stolen objects into four central collecting points: Munich, Wiesbaden, Marburg, and Offenbach.

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A painting by Edouard Manet, titled Wintergarden, was one of many discovered in the Merkers salt mine and removed by U.S. troops in April 1945. (111-SC-203453-5)

At these facilities, confiscated objects were identified, described, and photographed for restitution purposes. Marburg opened first in May 1946, yet it quickly filled up. It was closed in June 1946 once Munich opened, and Marburg's contents were distributed among the other three collecting points. The remaining collecting points were assigned "specialties" in order to expedite restitution efforts: Munich contained materials needing restitution to foreign countries and to the Bavarian State Museums; Wiesbaden held German-owned materials from the former Prussian State Museum and Staedel Institute of Frankfurt; and the Offenbach Archival Depot housed Jewish manuscripts, books, and archives. At their height, Munich held more than one million individual objects; Wiesbaden held more than 700,000.

The Munich Central Collecting Point was set up in the former Nazi administrative building (the Verwaltungsbau) and Hitler's former office (the Fürherbau).57 Offenbach opened in 1945 and restituted books and Judaic objects until 1947, when it was closed and the remaining materials were shipped to Wiesbaden collecting point.58

OMGUS made great efforts to recover and to restitute looted cultural property and created a large volume of records in the process. These records were created for specific purposes: to protect art, whenever possible, from being damaged or stolen by the Allied military forces and to keep art from being used as a financial asset by the Axis. Some of these records consist of property cards, created by the collecting point as the shipments were received. Munich alone received over fifty thousand separate shipments.59 The cards were created to document pertinent information in aiding restitution efforts: classification of the object, artist and title names, dimensions, markings, and photographs of the object. One category on the cards, "presumed owner," may allow art historians to begin their respective research into specific pieces and return them to the claimant.

* * *

Despite the tireless efforts of Allied military and civilian agencies, hundreds of confiscated artworks were never recovered and returned to their rightful owners. The vast volume of documentation left behind by the Nazis and the Allied agencies, however, allows those efforts to continue. Through its microfilming and preservation program, the Holocaust Records Project is providing the historical and art communities with greater access to the records that tell the story of artworks and artifacts damaged and looted during World War II.


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


 

Notes

1 In March 1996 a researcher was sent to the National Archives to look for information about Jewish dormant bank accounts in Swiss banks, and in May 1997 a report to Congress was prepared on the discovery of dormant claims and gold. Also in 1997, research into unpaid insurance policies, non-monetary gold (i.e., victims gold from the death camps), and looted art began. In March 1998 the National Archives and Records Administration published a finding aid that describes Holocaust-era assets available in the National Archives at College Park. In fall 1998 President Clinton signed the Nazi War Crimes Disclosure Act, calling for all federal agencies to recommend for declassification records relating to Holocaust-era war crimes, war criminals, Axis persecution, and looted assets, including art and cultural property. In regards to looted art, American art museums have begun the tedious task of researching the provenance of each item in their holdings.

2 If conducting art provenance research, please refer to Nancy H. Yeide, Konstantin Akinsha, and Amy L. Walsh, The AAM Guide to Provenance Research (2001), a useful guide to archival holdings worldwide.

3 Records of the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in War Areas ("The Roberts Commission"), Record Group (RG) 239, National Archives at College Park (NACP). The Roberts Commission records contain index card boxes divided into different subjects, including art looting suspects, looted art objects, repositories and collectors suspected of receiving or storing looted art objects, and firms involved in art looting. The records also contain two large series of photographs taken by the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFA&A) and the Signal Corps.

4 ERR's full name is der Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg für die Besetzten Gebiete, the Reich Leader Rosenberg Task Force for Occupied Territories.

5 OSS Art Looting Investigation Unit Reports, 1945–46 (National Archives Microfilm Publication M1782), Records of the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in War Areas, and Records of the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, RGs 239 and 38, NACP.

6 Art Looting Investigation Unit's Detailed Interrogation Reports (DIRs), 1945–1946, entry 74, boxes 84–84A, Records of the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in War Areas, RG 239, NACP. Arranged numerically by report numbers 1–13, with report number 8 not being used. "Investigation of Dr. Kajrtan Muehlmann, 1945–1948," a separate report by the Dutch Officer Jan Vlug, can be found in Restitution Research Records, 1933-1950, box 435, Ardelia Hall Collection, OMGUS, Records of U.S. Occupation Headquarters, World War II, RG 260, NACP.

7 Art Looting Investigation Unit's Consolidated Interrogation Reports (CIRs), 1945, entry 75, boxes 85–85A, Records of the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in War Areas, RG 239, NACP. Arranged numerically by report numbers 1–4, with report number 3 never completed. The final report is titled Report of the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in War Areas (1946).

8 Benjamin C. Sax and Dietar Kuntz, Inside Hitler's Germany: a Documentary History of Life in the Third Reich (1992), pp. 219–220. Also see Dietrich Orlow, The History of the Nazi Party, 19191933 (1969); George L. Mosse, Nazi Culture (1981); John Willett, Art and Politics in the Weimar Period: The New Sobriety, 19171933 (1978); and Jonathan Petropoulos, Art as Politics in the Third Reich (1996).

9 Dietrich Orlow, A History of Modern Germany, 1871 to Present (2nd ed. 1999), pp. 136–140; Shearer West, The Visual Arts in Germany, 18901937: Utopia and Despair (2001), pp. 159–205. See also Peter Adam, Art of the Third Reich (1992); and Stephanie Barron, "Degenerate Art": The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany (1991).

10 Lucy S. Dawidowicz, The War Against the Jews, 19331945 (1975), pp. 95–106. On June 14, 1938, the Nazis defined a Jewish business by issuing the "Third Decree to the Reich Citizenship Law": "A business enterprise is considered Jewish if its owner is a Jew." Dawidowicz, p. 96.

11 Lynn H. Nicholas, The Rape of Europa: The Fate of Europe's Treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War (1995), p. 31.

12 See two works by Petropoulos, Art as Politics in the Third Reich and The Faustian Bargain: The Art World in Nazi Germany (2000), and also Nicholas, The Rape of Europa. These books describe in detail the Nazi methods of looting and plundering private art collections and public national cultural treasures. Elizabeth Simpson, The Spoils of War: World War II and Its Aftermath: The Loss, Reappearance, and Recovery of Cultural Property (1997), contains accounts of American civilian and military personnel involved in the recovery and restitution of stolen art works.

13 More than 5,000 pieces arrived from the various Rothschild families, 1,200 from the Alphonse Kann collection, 2,600 from David-Weill of Levy de Benzion, and 550 from Seligmann art merchants. According to ERR's paperwork, from 1940 to 1944 it confiscated approximately 10,800 paintings and other pictures, 580 sculptures, 2,400 furniture pieces, 5,800 objets d'art, and more than 1,200 Asiatic articles.

14 Following the alphabetical abbreviation indicating the collection name was the number assigned to the object (placed consecutively), i.e. R1522, the 1,522nd object in the Rothschild collection. CIR No. 1, "Activity of the Einsatzstab Rosenberg in France," attachment 10, box 85, RG 239, NACP.

15 CIR No. 4 Linz, pp. 2–4, and attachments A and B, boxes 85–85A, entry 75, RG 239, NACP.

16 CIR No. 2 Goering, chap. V, Confiscations, boxes 85–85A, entry 75, RG 239, NACP.

17 Consolidated Interrogation Report (CIR) No. 4 Linz: Hitler's Museum and Library, attachment 1, boxes 85–85A, entry 75, RG 239, NACP. See Nicholas, The Rape of Europa, and Petropoulos, Art as Politics in the Third Reich, for further discussion of Posse and Voss.

18 CIR No. 4 Linz, p. 16 and attachment 1, boxes 85–85A, entry 75, RG 239, NACP.

19 Ibid., p. 18.

20 Ibid.

21 Nicholas, The Rape of Europa, p. 171.

22 Detailed Interrogation Report No. 12 "Hermann Voss," p. 7, boxes 84–84A, entry 74, RG 239, NACP (hereinafter cited as DIR No. 12 Voss).

23 Ibid., pp. 22–23.

24 DIR No. 12 Voss, pp. 6–20, boxes 84–84A, entry 74, RG 239, NACP. Author's conversation with ALIU member S. Lane Faison, Jr., Williamstown, MA, Apr. 6–7, 2002.

25 DIR No. 12 Voss, attachment 4, entry 74, RG 239, NACP.

26 CIR No. 2 "The Goering Collection," Sept. 15, 1945, by Theodore Rousseau, boxes 85–85A, entry 75, RG 239, NACP (hereinafter cited as CIR No. 2 Goering).

27 Ibid. For additional information on Nazi gift giving, see Petropoulos, Art as Politics in the Third Reich, pp. 264–282.

28 CIR No. 2 Goering, pp. 32–148, outlines the ERR's procedures for sales, exchanges, purchases, and confiscations. Boxes 85–85A, entry 75, RG 239, NACP. See also "The Plunder of Art Treasures," in Office of United States Chief of Counsel for Prosecution of Axis Criminality, Nazi Conspiracy and Aggression, vol. I ("Red series") (1946), pp. 1097–1116.

29 Hofer's correspondence shows his understanding of how Göring operated and which pieces suited Göring's art tastes. For example, in his letter to Göring dated Sept. 26, 1941, Hofer tells of nineteenth-century French paintings he selected for Göring and states that the degenerate art in the Paul Rosenberg collection would be suitable for exchanges. CIR No. 2 Goering, pp. 10–13 and attachments 1, 17, boxes 85–85A, entry 75, RG 239, NACP.

30 The Roberts Commission, RG 239, NACP. See Nicholas, The Rape of Europa, for a narrative account of the commission's contributions to recovering, protecting, and restituting looted artworks.

31 The American Defense Harvard Group had a major interest in protecting art collections and European refugee professors who had seen the confiscation and destruction of national treasures firsthand. U.S. government agencies like the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) used the group to its own advantage since these university communities had the networks to supply intelligence necessary for a successful European campaign. See Nicholas, The Rape of Europa, for a narrative of the American Defense Harvard Group contributions.

32 Chief Justice Harlan Stone to President Roosevelt, Dec. 8, 1942, p. 1, folder "American Commission-Organization," Correspondence, 1943–1946, box 12, entry 7, RG 239, NACP.

33 Cordell Hull to President Roosevelt, June 21, 1943, p. 2, folder "American Commission-Organization," Correspondence, 1943–1946, box 12, entry 7, RG 239, NACP.

34 Cordell Hull to David Finley, director, National Gallery of Art, July 16, 1943, folder "American Commission-Organization," box 12, Correspondence, 1943–1946, entry 7, RG 239, NACP.

35 Other Roberts Commission members included William B. Dinsmoor, president of the Archaeological Institute of America; former governor of New York Herbert Lehman, who resigned in 1942 in order to serve as the first director of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) (see the Simon Wiesenthal Museum of Tolerance web site, http://motlc.wiesenthal.com/text/x14/xr1426.html); Archibald MacLeish, Librarian of Congress; Paul Sachs, associate director of the Fogg Museum; Archbishop Francis J. Spellman (Spellman replaced Alfred E. Smith of New York when Smith died); Francis Henry Taylor, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art; Charles H. Sawyer, secretary to the Roberts Commission; Sumner Crosby, Roberts Commission representative in London; and John Walker, chief curator at the National Gallery of Art and special adviser to the commission.

36 During the Roberts Commission's first meeting in August 1945, it created seven subcommittees: Committee on Definition of Works of Cultural Value and Property, chaired by Finely; Committee on Administration, chaired by Finley and Cairns; Committee on Books, Manuscripts, and Other Printed and Written material of Cultural Value, chaired by Archibald MacLeish; Committee on the Protection of Cultural Treasures in War Areas and the American Defense-Harvard Group, chaired by ACLS; Committee on Collection of Maps, Information, and Description of Art Objects, co-chaired by Dinsmoor and Sachs; Committee on Personnel, chaired by Sachs and Constable; and Committee on Art instruction in Military Government Schools, chaired by Finley. See Records of the Roberts Commission Subcommittees, entries 42–59, RG 239, NACP.

37 For additional information on the Monuments Men, see the MFA&A records in the Roberts Commission records, Field Reports, 1943–1946, entry 62, boxes 56–74, RG 239, NACP. Janet Flanner wrote a series of New Yorker articles on the MFA&A, which are reproduced in Flanner, Men and Monuments (1990).

38 "Special background guidance for handling all information concerning the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in War Areas," dated March 1945, folder "American Commission-Organization," Correspondence, 1943–1946, box 12, entry 7, RG 239, NACP.

39 Ibid.

40 Hammond's reports are in Records Concerning MFA&A Officers (MFA&A), 1945, box 56, entry 60, RG 239, NACP. Other MFA&A members included Capt. Bancel LaFarge, Lt. George Stout, and First Lt. James Rorimer. See Gerald K. Haines, "Who Gives a Damn about Medieval Walls?" Prologue: Journal of the National Archives 8 (Summer 1976): 97–106; Nicholas, The Rape of Europa, chaps. 10 and 11; and James J. Rorimer, Survival: The Salvage and Protection of Art in War (1950).

41 Webb was the Slade Professor of Fine Arts at Cambridge University. Other Monuments Men included Lt. Lamont Moore, National Gallery of Art; Lt. Calvin Hathaway, Cooper Union Museum for the Arts of Decoration; Pfc. Lincoln Kirstein, art patron; Capt. Robert Posey, architect; Capt. Walker Hancock, Prix de Rome sculptor; and Lt. James Rorimer, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

42 MFA&A Field Reports, 1943–1946, entry 62, boxes 56–74, RG 239, NACP. See Nicholas, The Rape of Europa.

43 See MFA&A Field Reports, boxes 56–74, entry 62, RG 239, NACP.

44 Nicholas, The Rape of Europa, pp. 328–331.

45 See Greg Bradsher, "Nazi Gold: The Merkers Mine Treasure," Prologue: Quarterly of the National Archives and Records Administration 31 (Spring 1999): 7–21.

46 Nicholas, The Rape of Europa, pp. 346–350. Alt Aussee's estimated contents included 6,577 paintings, 2,300 drawings and watercolors, 1,200–1,700 cases of books, and over 250 cases of unknown objects.

47 Nicholas, The Rape of Europa, p. 338.

48 Ibid., pp. 337–339. Paul von Hindenburg, 1847–1934, was a German general and statesman; Frederick II, the Great, 1712–1786, ruled 1740–1786; and Frederick William II, 1744–1797, ruled 1786–1797.

49 Nicholas, The Rape of Europa, p. 342.

50 See Bradley F. Smith, The Shadow Warriors: O.S.S. and the Origins of the C.I.A. (1983). See also R. Harris Smith, OSS: the Secret History of American's First Central Intelligence Agency (1973).

51 Nicholas, The Rape of Europa, p. 282.

52 Memorandum dated Nov. 21, 1944, from Lt. J. S. Plaut, USNR, and Lt. T. Rousseau, Jr., USNR, to James R. Murphy, Chief X-2 Branch, Subject: Fine Arts Project "ORION," pp. 1–2, X-2 Branch, folder 1747, box 532, RG 226, NACP.

53 Nicholas, The Rape of Europa, p. 282.

54 James S. Plaut, the ALIU's director, was director of Boston's Institute for Contemporary Art. Theodore Rousseau, ALIU's Operations Officer, was a curator at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC. S. Lane Faison Jr., an ALIU officer and later director of the Munich Central Collecting Point, was a professor of fine arts at Williams College in Massachusetts. Additional staff members included Otto Wittman, the unit's liaison officer in Washington, DC, and John Phillip, the liaison officer in the ALIU's London office.

55 See Michael Kurtz, Nazi Contraband: American Policy in the Return of European Cultural Treasures, 19451955 (1985), which examines the politics of restitution of the Allied organizations and describes the failed attempt to create one repatriation policy in the postwar period.

56 For further reading on the collecting points, see Craig Hugh Smyth, Repatriation of Art from the Collecting Point in Munich after World War II (1988); Walter I. Farmer, The Safekeepers: A Memoir of the Arts at the End of World War II (2000); and Thomas Carr Howe, Jr., Salt Mines and Castles: The Discovery and Restitution of Looted European Art (1946).

57 Lt. Craig Hugh Smyth directed the Munich collecting point. See Smyth's book for a first hand account of the challenges Smyth faced trying to establish the collecting point in 1945. See Munich's Administrative Records in the Records of the Munich Central Collecting Point in the Ardelia Hall Collection, boxes 263–277, OMGUS, RG 260, NACP. S. Lane Faison, Jr., former ALIU member 1944–1946, returned to Munich in 1950 to assist in closing Munich collecting point. Author's conversation with Faison, April 6–7, 2002, Williamstown, MA.

58 Col. Seymour Pomrenze directed the Offenbach Archival Depot. See Records of the Offenbach Archival Depot in the Ardelia Hall Collection, boxes 250–262, OMGUS, RG 260, NACP. Offenbach reports are located in the Monthly Consolidated Field Reports in the Records of the Wiesbaden Central Collecting Point in the Ardelia Hall Collection, boxes 136–139, OMGUS, RG 260, NACP.

59 A collecting point property card number consists of the shipment number, origin of the shipment, and the number of the specific item being shipped. For example, a painting arriving to Munich from the mine at Alt Aussee would have the shipment number 23/Aussee 9, the ninth object on the twenty-third shipment from Alt Aussee. Property cards were created for the Marburg, Munich, and Wiesbaden collecting points and are now part of the Ardelia Hall Collection, RG 260, OMGUS, NACP.

 

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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