Berlin's Lost Treasures Resurface at Local Flea Market, Sotheby's New York

Bloomberg 16 December 2010
By Catherine Hickley

Paintings lost from Berlin museums in World War II and its chaotic aftermath have resurfaced decades later as far afield as Istanbul and Moscow, and as close to home as a local flea market.

About 600 19th-century paintings vanished from the Nationalgalerie’s collection during the war. Some were plundered from storage in flak towers; others were loaned to German embassies around the world, from where they were looted or sold. Still others were taken by Soviet and U.S. troops, surfacing in recent years in private collections.

Eighteen are on show at the Alte Nationalgalerie in a small exhibition called “Verlust und Wiederkehr” (Loss and Return) through March 6, 2011. Michael Eissenhauer, the head of Berlin’s state museums, said at the opening that the “curve of returns is steepening” and that he expects more recoveries in the years ahead.

"Dog With Gray Horse" by William Cole. The work was taken from Berlin by the exiled Iraqi prime minister in 1942. It was returned to Berlin's Alte Nationalgalerie in October this year and is now on show at an exhibition there titled "Loss and Return." Source: Staatliche Museen zu Berlin via Bloomberg

The British painter William Cole’s “Dog and Gray Horse” (1860) came home in October, flecked with dirt and cracked. Its circuitous journey is typical: In 1942, it was among several artworks loaned by the Nazi-era Foreign Ministry to the exiled Iraqi prime minister for his Berlin villa.

When he left Berlin, he took the loaned works with him and sold them to buy a house in southeast Germany. A descendant of the Dresden owner later found the picture on the Lost Art database, and negotiated compensation for its return to Berlin.

Cellars, Salt Mines

As Allied bombs rained on the city in World War II, curators hid artworks in cellars and flak towers, and eventually shipped them out of the city to salt mines and caves.

The Nazi regime’s obsession with bureaucracy means hundreds of lists document the paintings and their whereabouts. Yet curator Birgit Verwiebe said the artworks were so often in transit, it’s difficult to follow their routes.

One of the finest paintings to be retrieved is Wilhelm Ahlborn’s “View of Florence” (1832). Two monks, dressed in white, pray beneath a tree in the foreground; behind them, the city shimmers in a pale soft light. The picture was loaned, along with 68 others, to Adolf Hitler’s Reichskanzlei or chancellery, where it hung in the dictator’s private apartment.

"View of Florence" by Wilhelm Ahlborn. The work is on exhibition at Berlin's Alte Nationalgalerie for the first time since it disappeared from Adolf Hitler's Reichskanzlei in 1945. The painting resurfaced at a Berlin auction house in 2009. Source: Staatliche Museen zu Berlin via Bloomberg

Stashed in the Reichskanzlei’s cellar for safekeeping in the war, it survived the bombing that destroyed the building yet vanished, only to reappear at a Berlin auction house in 2009. A private collector notified the Nationalgalerie, which negotiated with the consignor for its return.

Divided City

Julius Huebner’s painting “Ruth und Naemi” (Ruth and Naomi) and Christian Bokelmann’s portrait of the poet Klaus Groth, stored in two different flak towers during the war, surfaced at a Berlin flea market in 2005. Both were restored to the museums in the same year.

The Berlin Wall divided the city’s art collections and made it difficult to compile lists of the vanished works, Eissenhauer said. Since then, databases such as Lost Art and the Art Loss Register have eased the identification of missing paintings for the art trade, he said.

Sotheby’s in New York, for example, pulled a Ferdinand Waldmueller landscape from a 1999 auction after Art Loss Register said it belonged to Berlin before the war. It returned to the Nationalgalerie in 2000.

"Praterlandschaft" (Park Landscape) by Ferdinand Waldmueller. The work disappeared from a Berlin flak tower in 1945, where it was stored to protect it from Allied bomb attacks. It was withdrawn from a Sotheby's auction in 1999 after being identified as part of the Berlin museums' prewar collection. Source: Staatliche Museen zu Berlin via Bloomberg

The Berlin museums’ policy is to offer a “finders’ fee” of about 10 percent of the painting’s value, according to Dorothea Kathmann, a legal expert at the foundation that runs the museums.

Cards displayed next to the paintings explain how they were recovered. Details are often sketchy. People who return works are often reluctant to reveal how the works were acquired, and don’t want to be identified by name.

An empty frame, which probably once contained a landscape by Carl Blechen, is displayed to symbolize the works that are still missing. In some cases, the Berlin museums’ researchers know exactly where they are.

Nine paintings by Karl Friedrich Schinkel and four works by Hans von Marees, for instance, are still in the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow. There is no plan to send them back to Berlin.

(Catherine Hickley writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)

To contact the writer on the story: Catherine Hickley in Berlin at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Beech at
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