With the Red Army and the Allies closing in on Berlin at the end of World War II, Hermann Goering, second only to Adolf Hitler in the Nazi regime, loaded thousands of paintings on private trains headed for the alpine isolation of Berchtesgaden on the Austrian border in a futile attempt to hide his looted treasures.
It didn't take long for the U.S. Army to track down both Goering and his art, numbering some 2,000 paintings. The Reichsmarschall was captured in the Austrian town of Zell am See, and his collection was inventoried and shipped to Munich.
The art world is still trying to recover.
"The movement of art really was unprecedented and resulted in the total realignment of collections," says Nancy Yeide, head of curatorial records at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. "[Hitler and Goering] totally rearranged the landscape of paintings worldwide."
Yeide, who spoke at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in downtown Hartford last week, has spent the past seven years working on her book, Beyond the Dreams of Avarice, The Hermann Goering Collection.
Out this month, the book marks the first time anyone has attempted to gather everything that's known about Goering's art collection in one place. The book includes 1,500 images of the paintings Goering confiscated or bargained for from compliant art dealers. Goering made some 19 or 20 trips to Paris during the war. Hitler is only known to have visited once, after his armies conquered the city.
"There are documents to show that when Goering went to Paris there were letters waiting for him from art dealers saying 'This is what we have for you,'" says Yeide. "They would put up exhibits for him. Goering actually did buy through dealers throughout the course of the war, both in Germany and occupied countries."
Of course, he paid in reichsmarks, or "invasion marks," which were of no value to the people in those occupied countries, says Yeide. And most of the art was simply confiscated.
"The Nazis looted everything, paintings, prints, stamps, coins, books," says Yeide. "The scale was really quite massive."
The Wadsworth was the first museum in the United States, in 1998, to identify one of its works of art as having Nazi-era "provenance," as the pedigree of a painting is known, and to return it to its rightful owners.
"We had one painting that we sent back to Italy, by [Jacopo] Zucchi," says museum spokeswoman Kim Reynolds. "We received an exhibition of 29 masterworks, including two masterpieces by Caravaggio, as a 'Thank you' for giving back the painting."
Parisian art dealer Francois Heim had sold the Zucchi to the Wadsworth in 1965, saying only that it had come from a "private collection" in Italy. The painting was returned to the Galleria Nazionale in Rome.
In addition to establishing that Goering had at least 700 more paintings than previously believed in his collection — it had been pegged at about 1,300 — Yeide also learned that he frequently traded modern masterpieces for much less illustrious works from the Dutch and German schools of "Old Masters."
For example, he swapped a Matisse for a painting by a minor 17th-century Dutch painter named Jan van Neck. And he traded away van Gogh's "Portrait of Dr. Gachet," which has since gone missing, and Degas's "Madame Camus," which is on display in Zurich.