Stolen Works

Missing Art Investigation Stalls

** FILE ** Undated black-and-white file photo of American soldiers looking at Nazi looted artwork. People looking for Nazi art loot in U.S. museums are to get a new tool when a Web site - www.nepip.org - goes on line that will help make a quick search of important public collections. A searcher for a lost work may see a clue in a thumbnail photo and a brief description on the Internet. The museum can then be asked for more information on what art experts call provenance - the object's history, including how the museum got it. (AP Photo/National Archives)
American soldiers with Nazi looted art in an undated photo.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Many works of art stolen by the Nazis are believed to still circulate unrecognized on the international art market.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • Some 650 paintings confiscated by the Nazis disappeared on April 29, 1945, from an air raid shelter of the so-called Führerbau, or “Führer’s Building,” in Munich.
    • In 2014, the Central Institute for Art History in Munich launched an investigation into their whereabouts.
    • The project was scheduled to be completed by last month, but resources were diverted to a task force investigating an art trove recently discovered in Munich.
  • Audio

    Audio

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To this day it’s unclear what happened to some 650 paintings that disappeared on April 29, 1945, from an air raid shelter of the so-called Führerbau, or “Führer’s Building,” in Munich.

Beginning in 1943, confiscated or purchased works of art had been stored there and in other depots. It was all part of implementing the so-called “special order of Linz”— for an art museum Hitler planned in Linz, Austria, near his birthplace.

Seventy years later, in the fall of 2014, a research project was launched under the leadership of Meike Hopp at the Central Institute for Art History in Munich, aiming to shed light on the looting episode, establishing where the objects came from and where they ended up. Organizers hoped that it might help museums determine the provenance of art in their collections.

Organizers hoped that it might help museums determine the provenance of art in their collections.

The project was scheduled to be completed by the end of March 2016. But along the way resources were diverted to a taskforce set up by the so-called “Gurlitt Provenance Research” project. That effort investigated a treasure trove of art works, some of which disappeared during the Nazi era, discovered in 2012 in a Munich apartment rented by collector Cornelius Gurlitt.

So research into art at the Führerbau — the significance and dimension of which go beyond Germany’s borders — took a back seat. The looted works of art are considered toxic, and many are believed to still circulate unrecognized on the international art market. Only a minority were found by investigators after the war.

One art collection that was affected belonged to Frenchman Adolphe Schloss, who was born in Fürth in Bavaria. His collection, including 333 works focused on 17th century Dutch painting, was confiscated from his Jewish descendants by the Gestapo in April 1943.

Among the works, 49 went to the Louvre and 262 were sold and wound up in Munich. They were never integrated into the official portfolio of the Führerbau. According to reports, Hitler was beside himself with rage that the Louvre had first choice.

The collection consisted mainly of small to medium-sized “objets d’art,” the kind of loot that was easy to transport. Possible thieves were presumably individuals who knew the value of what they saw.

Some of the works were located after the war and, like those from the Louvre, restored to their rightful heirs. Some landed in museums and were the source of protracted negotiations. Others went unrecognized and were sold from owner to owner via auction houses.

Currently, 164 works in the collection are still considered lost — meaning they haven’t been traced in publicly accessible databanks. Not knowing the provenance of the works of art makes research difficult, and a website created by heirs was last updated in 1997. The case was not registered with Interpol until 2012.

One of the works is by Dutch Golden Age painter Bartholomeus van der Helst. It is a portrait of a gentleman from 1647 and is valued between $17,100 and $34,200. On April 12 it is to be auctioned as looted art at Vienna’s im Kinsky auction house, so that an agreement can be reached.

Herrenportraet-ImKinsky
This once-stolen painting, a “Herrenporträt” by Dutch painter Bartholomeus, will be auctioned in Vienna. Source: Im Kinsky

 

This is a consciously initiated precedent, explained Ernst Ploil, a lawyer and co-owner of Kinsky. He added that the Austrian owner was willing to share the proceeds.

The only problem was that negotiations, which had been going on with the lawyer representing heirs since May 2015, had broken down. The heirs’ position has been carved in stone for years and is well documented in comparable cases: The object should be returned to the rightful heirs, one of the lawyers told Handelsblatt.

In his view, a mutually agreed sale and subsequent sharing of the proceeds would not follow the Washington Conference Principles on Nazi-confiscated art, agreed to by 44 countries in 1998. He does not accept the fact that according to German and Austrian law, the painting is in private legal ownership.

The auction house has said that the person selling the picture purchased it from an Austrian dealer “in good faith.” They do not want to name the art dealer. The auction house would only say that the Austrian dealer bought it in 2004 from a German dealer.

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