The greatest treasure hunt in history is in its 65th year and the end is nowhere in sight. The ultimate prize is the restitution of five million masterpieces and works of art looted by the Nazis during the Second World War to fuel Adolf Hitler’s maniacal view of himself as a great artist and connoisseur.
As the German armies rampaged across Europe he ordered the plunder of cultural items and demanded detailed reports as works by Michelangelo, Monet and Rembrandt, along with priceless antiquities, poured in. They stole masterpieces, musical instruments, cathedral bells and even butterfly collections, forcing their frightened owners to release them in turn for a chance of freedom.
The treasures were destined for the Führermuseum, a cultural centrepiece to Hitler’s demonic Third Reich. Built in his home town of Linz, Austria, with a 500ft long colonnade front, it was intended to house the biggest art collection the world had ever seen. More than 100,000 pieces are still unaccounted for including Raphael’s Portrait Of A Young Man, valued at £18million, and paintings by Van Gogh and Watteau.
Memories fade but the intensity of the battle to reclaim works given up in exchange for life or simply stolen never dims. A burst of complex court cases have surfaced around Europe as families fight to prove their birthrights to works that hang in galleries around the world.
The National Gallery bought a celebrated work by Lucas Cranach in good faith but has discovered it once hung on the wall of Hitler’s Munich apartment. It is now trying to establish its origin. The grandson of a Jewish socialite has just won the right to sue the Spanish government for £13million over a Pissarro painting. He claims his grandmother was forced to sell Rue St-Honore, Apres-Midi, Effet de Pluie to the Nazis for the equivalent of just £200. Claude Cassier is 89 and wants to see the painting restored to his family before he dies.
It is by no means the only disputed work. The Hungarian government is facing a lawsuit over 40 works of art, including a Monet, an El Greco and a Velazquez, allegedly stolen from the banker Baron Mor Lipot Herzog in the Nazi’s looting campaign.
A New York court last month ordered Austria’s Leopold art gallery to pay the family of a Jewish art dealer £12million for expressionist painter Egon Schiele’s Portrait of Wally, which it ruled had been stolen by a Nazi agent.
The cases, with their huge valuations, are much more than a selfish squabble for money. Most of the families are happy to see the paintings remain in the art galleries where they ended up. They want something more valuable: they want natural justice.
“It may be almost 70 years ago but it absolutely matters. It is about justice and heritage,” said Robert Edsel, whose book The Monuments Men, follows the story of the art historians, museum curators and architects who, for six years after the war, scoured Europe, tracking down more than five million pieces.
“It matters more because of the premeditated nature of the theft, it was a holocaustic event in art, if you will. Instead of hunting down people, this was hunting down works of art, either to destroy them because Hitler thought they were degenerate or to steal them.
” HE ADDS: “As the Second World War generation passes these works are going to find new owners be it through inheritance, estate sales or being discovered in attics. They are all coming out and we are in the early stages of something very dramatic. I expect a lot more court cases and issues over the next decade.”
Lord Greville Janner of Braunstone QC, chairman of the Holocaust Educational Trust said: “We must not let the passage of time diminish the importance of bringing justice to the victims of Hitler’s regime. Both the possessions and the lives of an entire generation were stolen during the Holocaust and the symbolic importance of returning assets wrongfully taken by the Nazis should not be underestimated.” Hitler did not give up his spoils easily and as the war turned he ordered one of his most detailed military operations: a 13-month, precision-planned relocating of the treasures.
As the Allies pushed forward from the Normandy beaches a snake line of trucks laboured through the snowy, mountainous terrain of the upper Danube to deposit a bewildering cargo in a series of salt mines. The entrance to the Steinberg mine was a six-foot high tunnel leading to a labyrinth with huge caverns that were floored and fitted with lighting and dehumidifiers.
It received 6,755 old master paintings, 230 drawings, 1,039 prints, 95 tapestries, 68 sculptures, 43 cases of objects d’art, innumerable pieces of furniture and 400 cases of valuable books. The last convoy arrived at the mine less than a month before VE Day.
A failed artist himself, Hitler was no ordinary art lover. His folksy style and poor drawing skills led to repeated rejection from art schools and the indignity burned deep. A determination to impose his world view of culture shadowed every moment to his death. An architect’s scale model of a master-planned Linz, built around the Führermuseum, was at his side when he committed suicide in the Berlin bunker.
“Hitler was trying to build a new Linz with all his effort. It was a very emotional project for him and there was no reality in it,” says Birgit Kirchmayr, curator of a 2009 exhibition in Linz about the looted art. “He was still buying and ‘acquiring’ paintings up to the end.
“The Nazis banned artists, poets, writers and their works. We have a letter from the SS to a library asking if it had taken the banned books off its shelves. His control was not just military, he wanted to control what people read and saw and remove any influences that did not fit with his view.”
The fact that so much art survived is a testimony to the Allies decision to protect Europe’s culture and set up the Monuments Men.
Major Ronald Balfour, a fellow of King’s College Cambridge, was the first to report the theft of Michelangelo’s Bruges Madonna stolen by the Nazis from the Belgian city’s cathedral. He died on March 10, 1945, when hit by an artillery shell as he was saving a sculpture.
“They were incredible heroes. It is an astonishing story of how these men walked away from safe positions in academia to be part of a generation that put things right,” said Mr Edsel.
“The Monuments Men protected culture through the combat and ensured that ‘to the victor, do not belong the spoils of war’. The gold standard of caring for culture was set in the Second World War.
“It is a lesson that should be heeded, particularly when you look at what happened in Iraq and the treatment of the national museum of Baghdad. There were only ever 350 of them and they stayed on until 1951 doing a difficult job.
“We owe them a debt of gratitude and 65 years on it still matters.”