January 16, 2018
Miss Low, English 10
World War II
changed the world in ways we’ll never know. One way we do know about, however,
is Nazi plunder, or the looting of art and other goods by the Nazis in the nineteen
thirties and forties. Nazi plunder is still affecting the world in a variety of
ways from lawsuits to treasure hunting. Nazi plunder has always been an issue. But,
in modern times. it seems to be rearing its ugly head once again.
To get a
better look at why Nazis looted art and why it’s resurfacing now, I delved into
where it began –Adolf Hitler. Hitler was the head of the Nazi regime and the
leader of the most massive robbery in history. Hitler himself aspired to be an
artist and went to art school in Vienna. He was rejected by the art community
and academies. Even so, he considered himself an arbitrator of art. (Fisher, paragraph 5) After Hitler seized
power, he began to consider ways to have a part in Germany’s culture clash. He
allowed his Nazis to strip museum walls of whatever art he deemed “degenerate”
(which was usually modern-style). He then put this art into one huge show
called the “Degenerate Art Show,” which was used to make known which artists
the Nazis disapproved of. (Fisher, paragraph 5)
Nazis would take advantage of their authority and take art from museums for
their personal use. In one instance, SS officer Otto von Wachter’s wife Charlotte,
would just walk into a museum and take whatever she wanted. People in the
museums were too afraid to say anything because of her husband’s position.
(Williams, paragraph 1) Even after the war and the decay of the Nazi regime, a
lot of this art was sold back to individual Nazi adherents (at a discounted
price) from shady dealers who worked along the Nazis for their personal collections.
(Carvajal and Smale, paragraph 7) An approximate of 20% of Europe’s art was
stolen at this time.
Nazi plunder has been resurfacing in
modern times. Many European Museums house large collections of unclaimed art
and are having difficulty from Holocaust descendants with lawsuits. (Plagens,
paragraph 1) Even some American museums are home to works with shady histories
after they were shipped from Europe during wartime. (Plagens, paragraph 7) Many
museums and auction houses have opted to hire lawyers to examine pieces before
buying them to be sure they don’t have any Nazi-related history. (Fisher, paragraph 13)
There is a gray market for looted artworks. Many wealthy
people who own previously stolen art privately sell these pieces amongst
themselves, so the art will never make it into public circulation. If this
artwork did make into the public, trouble could be awaiting with a slew of
lawsuits. (Fisher, paragraph 30) Of the top 40 missing pieces, 16 are still
missing, and about 100,00 overall.
interesting viewpoint of Nazi plunder is that of Nazi’s children and
descendants. In some cases, these descendants have chosen to return these
ill-gotten gains to their original owners. For example, the above-mentioned SS
officer von Wachter’s son, Horst von Wachter, has been returning his parent’s
looted items as a way of finding redemption. He has been making things right by
seeking out families who were affected by his parent’s actions. This is
incredible because he is doing the exact opposite of what his parents did. He
learned from the choices they made. (Williams, paragraphs 3-8)
For Mr. von
Wachter, who lives in Austria, the return of the stolen art pieces was the
product of years of work and personal soul-searching. The Wachter name still
carries a great deal of notoriety in Poland, and many officials were initially
reluctant to work with the son of a Nazi war criminal. But the efforts by von
Wachter to return the art to its rightful place provide a template for how the
descendants of Nazi officials and those whom they victimized can begin to
bridge the chasm between them through a process of forgiveness and restoration.
(Williams, paragraph 3)
most circumstances however, the descendants of Nazis are not as willing to just
hand over the stolen pieces. Museums too, are reluctant to return art that may
have been hanging on their walls for years. Many Holocaust victims and their
descendants are forced to resort to lawsuits to get back what originally
belonged to them.
very well-known case is that of the renowned ‘Woman in Gold’. This painting was done by Austrian painter
Gustav Klimt from 1903-1907. It belonged to Maria Altmann and her husband. The
couple fled Austria and came to the US during the rise of the Nazi regime.
According to Altmann, the painting depicts her aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer and was
a family heirloom. When they fled, they were forced to leave the painting
behind along with five others, which fell into the hands of Nazis who ransacked
their home. (Totenberg, paragraphs 3-5) After the fall of the Nazi Regime, the ‘Woman
in Gold’ and the five others wound up belonging to the Austrian government and
were displayed in the Galerie Belvedere, a federal museum. (Totenberg,
The painting was
known as the “Mona Lisa of Austria,” so it wasn’t going to be let go of without
a fight. Even so, Altmann wanted her
family’s beloved painting back. (Totenberg, paragraph 8) Altmann took this to
the court and it blew up into a huge legal battle. The case went to the United
States Supreme Court, so she could fight for the right to sue Austria, then
fight to get the painting. She ended up winning the case after an arbitrator
declared that Austria was legally obligated to give the beloved painting back. (Totenberg,
paragraph 24 and caption on picture) This is one of the most widely known cases
concerning Nazi plunder, but just one of the thousands of attempts to regain
what was rightfully theirs.
recent times, more and more stolen pieces are being recovered. Whether they are
being found in museums, private estates, or in caches, these discoveries are
shaking the art and legal worlds. Some
of the more intriguing discoveries have been made in the homes of Nazi
descendants, hidden from the world and the legal system. For example, in
Munich, Germany a huge discovery of over 1,400 pieces was made in 2012.
man who had these pieces was named Cornelius Gurlitt, the son of a Nazi.
Gurlitt had inherited these works from his father and stored them in his run-down
apartment. Authorities searched his apartment after he had committed tax
evasion (oddly enough) and found the massive collection of previously stolen
goods. Included in this collection where
pieces by world renowned artists such as Picasso, Matisse, and Renoir. A
discovery of this size is unprecedented. (O’Conner, paragraphs 6-7)
authorities were not sure what to do. Something like this is not a regular
occurrence. They were silent about the discovery until it hit the news in 2013.
The authorities stated that a 30-year old law on theft had just recently
expired and the art may have to be turned back over to Gurlitt. When the news
broke to the public, they were highly disturbed. This is not the only instance of
something like this happening. However, never to this large of a scale. (O’Conner,
paragraph 8) Modern law is making it increasingly difficult to return these
Nazis wanted to change the world, and change the world they did, just not
entirely the way they wanted to. Nazi plunder will likely continue to affect
the world as new discoveries are made. It’s incredible to look at all the
facets of it and see how even individuals are affected by it. How encouraging
it is to know that some of the Nazis’ villainies are finally being righted, as
families get back what was rightfully theirs.
Plagens, Peter. “The spoils
of war: pictures looted by Nazis hang in top museums. A drive to get them back
is roiling the art world.” Newsweek,
30 Mar. 1998, p. 60+. Educators Reference
Complete, http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/A20452286/GPS?u=nysl_we_sciocent=GPS=4d01ab0d. Accessed 9 Jan. 2018.
Williams, Weston. “Why it’s
so hard to return art stolen by Nazis.” Christian Science Monitor, 28 Feb. 2017. Infotrac Newsstand, http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/A483536134/GPS?u=nysl_we_sciocent=GPS=f9d1a3a6. Accessed 9 Jan. 2018.
Carvajal, Doren, and Alison Smale.
“Looted by Nazis, and Returned, Art Is Back in Wrong Hands.” New York Times, 16 July 2016, p. C1(L). Infotrac Newsstand, http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/A458231866/GPS?u=nysl_we_sciocent=GPS=9cbf269e. Accessed 9 Jan. 2018.
Max “Why Nazi-seized art is only now resurfacing – and how it will change the
The Washington Post, November 6, 2013
Bradsher, Greg “Documenting Nazi
Plunder of European Art.” The National
Archives, November 1997
Totenberg, Nina “After Nazi Plunder: A Quest to Bring Home the Woman in
Gold.” NPR, April 2,2015
O’Conner, Anne-Marie “The Nazi Art Theft Crisis in Europe “TIME, December 19, 2013