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On the Trail of Lost Art

A Conversation with Lynn H. Nicholas

HUMANITIES, May/June 2001 | Volume 22, Number 3

NEH Chairman William R. Ferris spoke recently with historian Lynn H. Nicholas about the disppearance of artwork during World War II and its ramifications in the art world today. Her book, The Rape of Europa, is the subject of an NEH-supported documentary to be produced by Actual Films in association with Oregon Public Broadcasting.

William R.Ferris: Most art historians are primarily interested in the history of art, the materials of art, or interpreting art, but in your book, The Rape of Europa, provenance is the subject. How did you get interested in art provenance?

Lynn H. Nicholas: My very first job in Washington was a very lowly one at the National Gallery of Art. I am not an art historian, I am a historian, so I was always more interested in how the pictures had gotten there, whom they had belonged to, things like that. At the National Gallery, I met a number of people who had been involved in recovering works of art at the end of the war. They were all trained museum professionals who had been drafted, to recover and protect works of art in the battle areas. Nobody had ever talked to them about this or put their story together.

Ferris: It is said that virtually no medieval cathedral bells are left in all of Europe because they were all melted down for bronze during the last war and their sound, unable to be duplicated, has been lost forever. What do you see as the long-lasting effect of two world wars on Europe's art treasures?

Nicholas: The remarkable thing is how much was saved. I have a wonderful picture of stacks and stacks of church bells on the docks in Hamburg waiting to be melted down that were recovered by the Allies. There was a very dedicated gentleman who spent his whole life trying to figure out which church they had come from. Both in the First World War and in the Second World War, there were special groups in the German armies and occupation forces whose job it was to protect works of art. They did a very good job, as did the national governments. A few major works were lost, but essentially the bulk of it was saved. That is really a miracle and a tribute to all the people who worked on protecting art.

Germany and Russia lost the most because so much of the war was fought on their territory and they had so much bombing. In Italy, and France too, a lot of the churches and buildings were very heavily damaged. But movable works of art, for the most part, had been put into shelters and were okay.

Ferris: Your book begins with a description of the sale of art in Lucerne just before the Second World War. How did the sale come about, and where did the art come from?

Nicholas: They were works of art that the Nazis had deaccessioned from the German national museums because they considered them degenerate. They believed that modern art, abstract art, was degenerate and that people should not be allowed to see it. They thought the artists were communists and left-wing and antiwar, which was sometimes but not always true. The Nazi regime wanted their artists to show the glories of German life—the German peasant, the German soldier, and so forth. They appointed commissions that went through the museums and said, "This picture has to go, this one can stay." Although the pieces were not pure enough for the Nazis, they realized that they were worth a lot of money. So they sold some of them in Switzerland to generate foreign currency, which they needed badly. A lot of people outside Germany did buy these things, and a tremendous number of them are in American museums. They are not considered loot or displaced art—that's the new word for loot—but art that was legitimately deaccessioned by the German government at the time. Later, when they did steal art, they kept the Old Masters and sold off what they considered degenerate. Many of those works are now reappearing in strange places.

Ferris: What were the effects of the sale?

Nicholas: Basically it was very good for the American art market and some European museums. The war intervened or Germany would have had more sales like that. The Nazis did burn and destroy a number of things in Germany itself that were in this category of "degenerate art." The main effect was in occupied countries later—modern art was used as barter by the Nazis to get Old Masters. After the war, the modern stuff was harder to recover because it was not kept by the Nazi leaders. If you had your art confiscated and kept by Hitler, it wasn't very hard to find. But if it had been sold on the market in rather secretive ways, it was much harder to locate after the war.

Ferris: What was the art world's reaction and the reaction of dealers and collectors to the sale?

Nicholas: They were of two minds. Some dealers did refuse to participate. They assumed the sale was supporting the Nazi regime, and that was not good. But others felt they were saving the paintings. Only about one hundred and twenty paintings were sold at that sale. The Nazis sold other things from Berlin itself, quite a bit more. Many dealers did try to buy artworks and get them out of there because they knew that otherwise they would be destroyed.

On the other hand, there were some German dealers who encouraged the Nazis to deaccession more and more. The dealers acted as middlemen and made a nice profit. It was quite a shady business.

Ferris: What was the Nazi policy of stealing art from private individuals before and during the war?

Nicholas: Their confiscations of art during the war were based on their ideology. They considered it perfectly okay to take things from Jews, who were considered non-people and non-citizens, and, in their view, didn't have any right to the possession of works of art. If you were a French Jew, in the eyes of the Nazis you were not a citizen of France and you were not protected by the international conventions which prevent looting of private property from citizens in an occupied country. So the collections were open to looting. In Eastern Europe, where they considered the whole population less than human, they took everything—from the state museums, from private collectors, and so forth.

Ferris: How did Hitler and the Nazis determine what was "good art" and what was "degenerate art"?

Nicholas: It was pretty subjective. Hitler's own friends weren't quite sure what he meant by degenerate art, particularly at the beginning. Von Ribbentrop liked impressionist pictures and Goebbels had German expressionist paintings in his house. They had to hide them after a while from Hitler, who didn't like any of that. So it was really Hitler's personal choice. Basically, he liked propaganda art and anything that was by a German artist, anything that glorified Germanism. He did not like religious pictures, so the German museums also deaccessioned religious scenes by Old Masters.

Ferris: Why were the Nazis interested in stealing modern art on a massive scale when that was the very art that they termed degenerate?

Nicholas: I don't think they did target modern art particularly. They deaccessioned it from their museums in order to make money, and then they sold it abroad. They also wanted to clear the museums of that kind of thing because they didn't like it. In the countries they occupied, they would confiscate whole collections belonging to Jews or other political targets—the modern stuff they would sell to dealers, who would then resell it somewhere, and the Old Masters they would keep for their own museums and collections.

Ferris: How much great, or near-great art was taken by the Nazis from private collections? Was it harder or easier to take this privately held art than, say, from state museums?

Nicholas: There were two branches of this. In the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe and Poland, they took things from private collectors and state museums and redistributed them to their own museums and amongst themselves. In Western Europe, in France and Holland and so forth, they kept the state collections intact, but they confiscated works that belonged to Jews and others. They did not confiscate things that belonged to people they regarded as Aryans or politically harmless. But the Germans were planning to rearrange the public collections once they won the war. They were going to take all the Germanic art (which was very generously defined) out of the Louvre and take it to Germany. They had all kinds of little rules that they had to follow, but basically the idea was to get everything German back into the Reich.

Ferris: How did the Nazis legitimize thefts from museums as opposed to from private collectors?

Nicholas: The works that they took from museums in the West—and they didn't manage to get away with very much because people protested—they justified by saying they were trying to keep them safe or it was a cultural exchange. That was the public excuse.

One great example is the Ghent altarpiece, the Van Eyck altarpiece. The Belgians had put it in France to keep it safe during the war and the Germans just went and took it. They said it was to protect it, and that it was revenge for the Versailles Treaty. Under the Treaty of Versailles after World War I, the Germans had been forced to give a couple of panels of the Ghent altarpiece—which Germany had had for generations—to Belgium. The Germans said they were getting those panels back. In fact, they took the whole thing back and not just the panels. In the East, in Poland and Russia, they took whatever they wanted, tons of stuff, because the Slavs were to be treated as a sort of rural slave labor and were not, in their view, worthy of owning works of art.

Ferris: There were some fairly distinguished personalities involved in this looting. Who did the actual dirty work, and what happened to them?

Nicholas: Hitler and Goering and a number of other people had large bureaucracies that dealt with looting. Hitler had a very distinguished art historian, the director of the Dresden Museum, who directed his operations. This man, whose name was Hans Posse, had been a museum director for years. He knew, as all museum directors should know, where the collections were that he wanted—which were the good ones, which would fill gaps in his collections, and so forth. Hitler wanted to build a completely new museum in Linz, his hometown, which would have been the biggest and most important museum in Europe. So Dr. Posse was given the commission of going all around Europe to pick out the things that he wanted. Some of them came from confiscated collections, but a large number came from the art market. The Nazis bought thousands of works of art on the markets in Germany itself and in the occupied countries. There were lots of dealers who were perfectly happy to sell to them, and they paid very good prices. Goering had a somewhat less distinguished gentleman working for him and probably the best known agency in this business. It was the ERR, run by Alfred Rosenberg. They operated on a big scale in France, but mostly with confiscated art, not with purchased art.

Ferris: Who would you consider the villains of the story?

Nicholas: The big villains, of course, are Hitler and Goering. But there were a number of dealers in the West who wanted to make a bundle. Art historians in Germany worked right along with the Nazi leaders. It is a little hard to tell how much coercion there was, because by the time the war started, it was hard to resist the Nazis if they wanted you to do something. The alternative was to go to a concentration camp or be killed.

Ferris: Who was Max Friedlander?

Nicholas: Max Friedlander was a German Jewish art historian who had moved to Holland during the thirties because of the Nuremberg laws. He was one of Germany's most famous art historians. When the Germans took over Holland, many, many Jews were sent to concentration camps. But they needed Friedlander to give expertise on works of art, so he was made an honorary Aryan by Goering's curator and, in that situation, did provide expertise on paintings that Goering wanted to either buy or confiscate. He survived the war, but he had to be fished out of concentration camps twice by Goering's curator.

Ferris: The Germans were not the only looters. What were the Russians doing at the end of the war?

Nicholas: The Russians had a special part of their army, which was called the Trophy Brigade. They were art historians who were assigned not just to protect things, but to recover items that had been taken from the Soviet Union. They also were told to gather up any works of art they found and take them back to the Soviet Union as reparations for what the Nazis had taken and destroyed there. They did take back vast amounts of art, which they then distributed to museums in Russia. Some went to the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, some went to the Pushkin in Moscow, and some went to other museums all over the Soviet Union.

Ferris: How much European art today is thought to reside in the caverns of Russian art museums and archives?

Nicholas: There is a considerable amount. After the opening up of Russia, it was revealed that this art was there and had been kept secret for fifty years, which was quite a feat.

If you count books and archives and everything, there are hundreds of thousands of objects. A number of things have been returned, for instance the archives of the art dealer Paul Rosenberg. The Russian parliament passed a law nationalizing the objects that have been taken, but there was a clause which authorized private people to make claims. Many people are trying to get the Russian politicians to approve further returns to Europe, and I think that will slowly happen.

Ferris: I'd like to talk with you about the heroes of your story. Your book tells about the valiant attempts to preserve collections from the ravages of war. You tell the story of how the contents of Britain's National Gallery were hauled off to Welsh mines for safekeeping. You also write about some heroes in Russia and France, people like Rose Valland.

Nicholas: Rose Valland was a curator at the Louvre Museum. During the war the Germans took over a small and beloved museum called the Jeu de Paume, which was where the impressionists and more modern pictures were shown. They took over that building as a storage place for the things they were confiscating and buying. Rose Valland was the person who watered the potted palms and took care of the French maintenance staff. In fact, the whole time, she was spying on the Germans and making lists of what had been confiscated and where they were sending things, which was very brave. The Nazis took photographs of everything they stole, and she would take the negatives home at night and make copies of them, so that after the war the French were able to provide the Allies with information on where the objects were hidden.

In the last days of the war—it's a great story—the Nazis had loaded up a train with works of art that they wanted to remove before the Allies got to Paris. Rose told the French Resistance about it and they managed to keep the train kind of backing and filling around Paris for a couple of days until the Allied armies could liberate the city. They found the train sitting on a siding right near Paris. This was made into a movie called The Train with Burt Lancaster and a beautiful French lady playing Rose Valland—not very accurate, but it's a good movie.

On the German side, too, there were people who risked their lives, particularly at the end of the war, to protect their own collections and the stored collections of other people. In Thuringia they had put a lot of things in a mine to protect them. There was a curator called Paul Rave who stayed there while the American army was coming in one direction and the Russians in another, until he could hand over the works of art to the Americans to make sure they were okay. They were major, major things from the Berlin Museum. There were heroes—well, I could go on—in Italy and everywhere.

Ferris: Can you talk for a moment about Russian efforts to preserve the collections of the Hermitage? What kind of conditions were they working under?

Nicholas: The Russians had waited very late to protect their works of art. They were—which is always amazing to me—completely surprised by Hitler's attack on the Soviet Union in 1941. St. Petersburg, of course, is not far from the border, and at the Hermitage, which has several million items, and at the palaces around St. Petersburg, there was just frantic packing. Even as the bombing was going on, they got one trainload off to Siberia, to Sverdlosk. Meanwhile, the Russians had run out of packing materials and were using fresh-cut hay from the fields and old uniforms of the tsar to wrap up these very delicate items. At the palaces around St. Petersburg, they buried statues in the gardens and walled up things in basements. It was a remarkable effort as the bullets were flying. A lot of curators went to Siberia with the works of art. They didn't have enough clothes to wear—it was already snowing and they had on their summer shoes. They put all the works of art in an old theater and they all survived there, one way or another, until the war was over. It really does read like Indiana Jones, the whole story of that evacuation. Tens of thousands of people died of starvation in St. Petersburg during the siege by the Nazis, which lasted two and a half years. The Hermitage became a center of resistance, and despite all, they would have poetry readings and concerts in this freezing museum. And every day they were bombed, they would sweep up snow and glass from the galleries.

Ferris: What happened to the famous Amber Room at Catherine the Great's palace?

Nicholas: It's one of the great unsolved mysteries of the war. The Amber Room consists of a series of large panels made of little slivers of amber that are put together like stained glass, so they are very delicate. They were taken down by the Nazis and packed away, and then they were exhibited at one point in Königsburg or Kaliningrad, as it's called now, where the Nazis had set up a museum of works they had taken from Russia. As the war came to an end, they were packed up again and put somewhere, and nobody knows where that is. The Kaliningrad was bombed, so it is possible that the panels were destroyed there, but it is also possible that they were on a ship that sank in the Baltic or that they are in a cave somewhere. Every treasure hunter in the world is out there trying to find them. In the meantime, the Russians have started restoring the Amber Room and recreating the panels. Probably before they find anything, it will be finished.

Ferris: Great Britain and America come away as the heroes of the war to save cultural property. What was the MFAA, and how effective was it?

Nicholas: Before the Allies invaded the continent, the American museum establishment realized that it was going to be very difficult to protect movable works of art as well as the physical buildings. There are rules of warfare that prohibit soldiers and armies from stealing private property and church property and whatnot, but they had heard many rumors about the confiscations. There was lobbying in Washington by the director of the Metropolitan Museum and the officers of the National Gallery. They managed to get the Army to assign specialist officers to the various Army groups so that as they progressed through Europe, they would have someone who knew about works of art. I think there were twelve for all of Europe at the beginning.

When they got to Germany, their main job was to gather movable works of art and put them in collecting points—buildings which eventually would hold tens of thousands of paintings and sculptures and books—and then try to sort them out and send them back to the countries that they had come from.

After the war, those involved in art protection returned to their regular jobs. John Walker continued at the National Gallery, where he eventually became its director. John Nicholas Brown, father of Walker's successor, Carter Brown, was an adviser to General Eisenhower on art matters and returned to being a private citizen. Mason Hammond went back to Harvard and taught classics. Most of these men—and there are many others—Craig Hugh Smyth, who was at New York University, and James Rorimer, who became director of the Metropolitan Museum—were art professionals, and they came back and just did their jobs without talking much about the heroic things they had done during the war. It was a remarkable group.

Ferris: You were involved in a recent court case surrounding the ownership of a small Degas monotype, Landscape with Smokestacks. What does that case tell us about ownership issues surrounding art that was taken by the Nazis in World War II?

Nicholas: This particular picture, the Degas monotype, was not a major work of art. It was not of interest to the Nazi higher-ups and it wasn't particularly valuable for the dealers. It was, I believe, stolen or spirited away by one of the Nazi dealers and kept in his collection in Switzerland for a long time. It eventually got back into the art market and Mr. Searle bought it. It is a perfect example of the need to do more research on works of art that have gaps in their provenance during the war. If you are buying a painting and it can't be accounted for between 1933 and 1955 or so, then you should do extra research to see where it was and who owned it and what its history is, because it could well be one of the unrecovered works that disappeared during the war.

The whole story of Nazi looting, which was revived in the middle nineties, has led museums and dealers and collectors and governments to be more aware of the need to be careful and do research on possible confiscated works. It has also revived interest on the part of the people who lost the art, or their heirs. Prices in the art world have gone up so astronomically that things people got for very little at that time now are huge assets.

Ferris: We know that American museums unknowingly acquired stolen works of art after World War II. How have American museums addressed this issue in recent years?

Nicholas: It is a difficult issue because museums get a lot of things by donation. There is no main list that you can refer to, to see whether something has been looted. They are trying to set up lists, but it is very difficult. Because of the revival of interest, the museums have now published new guidelines for research and provenance. That doesn't mean to say that they just hand things back when a work of art is questioned. There should be evidence beyond a reasonable doubt that it is the right work of art and that it was looted. Some museums have been very gracious when this happens. When the claim is proven to their satisfaction, they have handed things back. Other museums tend to fight a little harder. It is a difficult situation for the museums, but, theoretically, they have agreed to be more open about the issue and to make efforts to return things that are proven loot.

Ferris: How many works of art, for example, in the Metropolitan are difficult to trace in terms of provenance or have questions attached to the legitimate provenance?

Nicholas: There is no way to answer that question. Provenance research is a difficult proposition. For centuries people have not been very straightforward about where they got things for a number of reasons—not because they were stolen but, say, they do not want their cousin to know they got it from their grandmother or they do not want to pay taxes. So all provenances are full of holes. And all museums have been going through their records and looking at things that they acquired during the war years and trying to determine which things should be investigated further. I don't think it is possible to put any numbers on that. I doubt that many are real problems.

Ferris: The whereabouts of a number of works of art is still unknown. Which would be the most important works of art that were lost, destroyed, or unaccounted for after World War II?

Nicholas: There are a few major things, for instance a beautiful Raphael portrait that was taken from Poland, Portrait of a Young Man. Of course, many works belonging to Germany are thought to have been destroyed in the bombing. I think Germany lost the most—Bellinis and Caravaggios and all kinds of things from the Berlin museums. Mostly the objects that were lost, probably from private collectors, would be impressionist works that went into the market, or objets d'art—clocks, little plates, small furniture—which are very hard to identify or trace. Of the things that were displaced, which is the word you use to describe art being stolen or looted or sold, probably 80 or 90 percent of it has been returned.

Ferris: How and why was the looting of Europe's art by the Nazis different from what happened under Napoleon or during the Thirty Years' War or, for that matter, Lord Elgin taking off chunks from the pediment of the Parthenon?

Nicholas: Actually, it wasn't so different from Napoleon. Even before Napoleon, the French revolutionary governments, just like Hitler, had drawn up lists of things that they wanted. They felt that France was the best civilization and that their people deserved the best works of art in the world. They had dealers advising them and their armies went to Belgium and Germany, and then later under Napoleon to Italy, and brought back works which they had actually been told to bring back. The scale on which the Nazis operated was greater and, of course, the biggest difference was the ideological aspect, the taking of things from Jews just on a racial basis and not for any other reason.

Lord Elgin is a big controversy. The British Navy helped get the marbles out of Athens, but the French were after them, too, so it was really a matter of who got there first. They had been given permission of a sort to remove some of the sculpture, and I think they took rather more than they should, but I don't believe that is in the same category.

Ferris: How widespread is looting in museums of art today?

Nicholas: I think that it will be interesting to see what happens to items in Bosnia and the Balkans in general. I gather there has been a lot of destruction and looting. Whenever a group has total power over another there is the chance for destruction. Another instance is the Taliban destroying Buddhist statues—again, that's an ideological reason to destroy a work of art—which is totally unfortunate. But I don't believe there is very much looting in museums otherwise. There is theft, which causes excitement from time to time, but it is not very general except in a war situation.

Ferris: Perhaps we need working definitions for "cultural property" or "national patrimony." How do we define cultural property in the context of history, with what has gone on in Europe over the last five hundred years?

Nicholas: The various conventions—the Hague Convention, a number of other international agreements, and the International Rules of Warfare—all define these things quite clearly. I think the definition goes way back. Even in Shakespeare's Henry V, the king tells his troops not to take things from the churches. But in times of war, where people are helpless, it is hard to control troops, so the rules are violated all the time. After the Napoleonic wars, the Duke of Wellington set up a commission and forced the French to give back a lot of what they had taken. The commission only managed to get about half of it back because everybody cheated a lot. That was really the beginning of the modern idea of restitution. Until the middle of the eighteenth century, there was no such thing as national patrimony. That is a concept that came in with the nation-states. Before, collections belonged to the king or to cardinal so-and-so or some rich merchant, but they were not national patrimony. That is a fairly new idea, but is now very established. It is like any international agreement, which people will obey as long as it is convenient for them. When they want to violate it, they will.

Ferris: How do we determine the legitimate ownership of anything? Things change, as you point out, from period to period. The Elgin Marbles, for example. Who owns those? The Greek or British people?

Nicholas: Works of art that people have bought on the market follow the rules of commerce and ownership. For the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum, there is an act of parliament which says that they cannot be deaccessed. Lord Elgin did have, I think, permission from the local Ottoman leader to remove some of the objects, so I suppose ownership could be debated in an international court on that basis. What makes it possible for things to be returned in that sort of situation is the change in view. A perfect example would be the Rothschild collection from Austria. The Austrian Rothschilds reclaimed their collection after the war, and a big part of it was returned, but they weren't allowed to export some pieces from Austria because they were considered national treasures. When some of the family moved away, in exchange for being allowed to take certain works out, they had to agree to leave other things in the national museums of Austria. Since the World War II looting has come up again, that policy was revisited. The minister of culture in Austria thought it was not right, and so the government did give back all the works belonging to the Rothschilds.

That is an example of a government changing a decision, which seemed legitimate at the time but, in retrospect, seems unfair. This process is going on all over Europe in regard to works of art. The Soviet Union, because of the tremendous destruction during the war at the hands of the Nazis, didn't want to give anything back. They said, "We deserve to keep these works to make up for what was done to us." They, too, are beginning to moderate that view, and I think they eventually will return quite a lot of things to Germany and elsewhere.

Ferris: Thank you so much for taking time to talk with us about it.