In the George Clooney movie, “The Monuments Men,” Allied forces towards the end of World War II find and save thousands of paintings and other works of art that had been looted by the Nazis.
“The movie leaves people optimistic and happy that all of the paintings have been found,” said Anne Webber. “What we discovered is the truth of what happened next.”
The truth: Many of the paintings were returned to the families of several of the high-ranking Nazis who stole them rather than to their rightful owners. Among those who received paintings were the Goering, Hoffmann, Bormann, von Schirach, Frank and Streicher families. In many cases they negotiated directly with the director of the Bavarian State Museums and ministers in the Bavarian government.
Calling it a “remarkable scandal” that has been “covered up by Germany for decades,” Webber, co-chair of the London-based Commission for Looted Art in Europe (CLAE), painted a picture of how obstacle after obstacle was placed in front of the families of those from whom the paintings were stolen while Bavaria was readily returning paintings to the families of the Nazis who requested them.
She added that her researchers were unable to determine the full scope of the scandal because some of the records were not made available. A Catholic Cathedral Association in the German state of North Rhine Westphalia, which now holds one of the paintings belonging to a family CLAE represents, also refuses to cooperate and return the painting “despite its scandalous history.”
Two lawyers representing the families of Jewish art dealers seeking to recover their families’ paintings said they have run across the same kind of stonewalling in their attempts to track down missing art.
“It is an insult to the survivor community that Nazis or their heirs could succeed in recovering looted artwork while Jews from whom it was looted are left out in the cold and forced to go to court to reclaim it,” said one of the lawyers, Mel Urbach of Manhattan.
Calling it a “shocking revelation,” Greg Schneider, executive vice president of the Conference on Material Claims Against Germany, told The Jewish Week that it only serves to demonstrate the “need for immediate and forceful action to bring about justice.”
“There can be no more excuses and no more delays, no more prevaricating and no more hiding behind bureaucratic processes,” he said in a statement. “In light of this latest news, lawful owners and their heirs must be provided means of legal redress in order to have their rights recognized.”
Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, told The Jewish Week in a statement that if the allegations are true, “it is one of the most scandalous incidents related to the subject to date … [and] a great slap in the face of the victims of the Holocaust and their families.”
“Returning stolen property to the criminals guilty of the theft is nothing short of a crime itself,” he added. “The very idea that the state would negotiate with the families of high-ranking Nazi officials, rather than insisting on restitution to those whose lives and property were upended during the Holocaust, is dismaying. … All documents pertaining to this time, from the State Art Collection and every other relevant governmental organization, must be made accessible.”
Webber said her organization, a non-profit created in 1999 to help families recover their Nazi-looted artwork, uncovered the scandal while searching for 160 looted paintings for the family of the late Gottlieb and Mathilde Kraus of Vienna. She said their research led them to believe two of the paintings would be in a state-owned museum in Munich, to which they were transferred in 1952 after the U.S. handed them over to Bavaria with the explicit direction that they be returned to their original owners
In a statement, the museum, the Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, said it currently has four employees conducting provenance research on the paintings in its collection and that this work started in 1998.
“It is the declared intention of the relevant ministry and the directors of the Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen to return unlawfully seized property to its owners or their heirs, or to find fair and just solutions,” it added. “The Staatsgemäldesammlungen proactively investigates all paintings and sculptures which were acquired after 1933 and were produced before 1945.”
Webber said that despite decades of effort by the Kraus family, it was only in 2004 that the first of their paintings was returned — the Austrian government returned six of the family’s paintings that were in their museums. She said the family turned to the commission after being told by others that there was little chance of them finding the other paintings.
The commission’s researchers learned that two other Kraus paintings had been found by the Monuments Men in the collection of Heinrich Hoffman, the personal photographer and close friend of Hitler. The commission then discovered that in the early 1960s the Bavarian museum acceded to a request by Henriette Hoffmann-von Schirach that they be “returned” to her.
She was the daughter of Heinrich Hoffmann and the former wife of Baldur von Schirach, the Nazi Youth leader and later Hitler’s district governor of Vienna. Von Schirach was tried at Nuremberg and found guilty of crimes against humanity for the deportation of 60,000 Austrian Jews to Nazi concentration camps. He served 20 years in prison.
“It seems that Bavaria thought restitution meant restitution to the Nazis rather than to their victims,” said Webber.
In fact, she said that despite officials insisting that there was virtually no paperwork on the issue, her researchers found pages and pages of documents in the Bavarian state archives showing that between 1949 and the early ’60s, Henriette Hoffmann-von Schirach “got back some 90 works of art and 4,000 books — she made the claims as von Schirach’s wife.”
Markus Stotzel, the attorney in Germany working with Urbach, the Manhattan lawyer, said they, too, have been stonewalled in their efforts to recover art from the Bavarian museum.
“We have a valuable claim for eight paintings against the Bavarian collection and in 2008 we asked them to provide us with copies of the backs of the paintings so we could see the gallery labels, exhibition markers, collector stamps — it provides clarification about the provenance,” he said. “There has not been even an offer to meet over the last eight years.”
Webber said her researchers learned that in 1962, the Bavarian museum sold to von Schirach’s wife one of the two Old Master Kraus paintings for 300 deutsche marks. Webber said she sold it in 1963 for 16,100 deutsche marks to the Catholic Cathedral Association of Xanten in Germany’s North-Rhine Westphalia.
“That was more than 50 times what she paid,” Webber said. “Jewish families trying to recover their looted artworks were told nobody knew where they were and that they had to provide extensive proofs of ownership and documentation. Most did not have any because their whole world had been destroyed by the Nazis. They did not have homes or photographs — they were lucky if they had their lives.
“But at the same time that they were finding insurmountable barriers and the German government was telling them they not know where their property was, the museums and the government of Bavaria were engaged for almost two decades in working with high-ranking Nazi families, whose demands were dealt with promptly and efficiently. They had little requirement to prove that they really owned the paintings.”
“Over 2,500 works from the collections of the Nazi leaders were handed over to Bavaria,” Webber pointed out. “And these were the artworks the families of the Nazi leaders were getting back over this period.”
She said the commission wrote to the Bavarian State Paintings Collection to make a claim for the return of the second Kraus painting and to ask who authorized the sale of the first.
“We received only two documents from the museum and no explanation. We then asked the Bavarian government, but they, too, provided only two documents and no explanation. It was this that spurred us to undertake our own research and to uncover hundreds of documents in the Bavarian government archives and this whole scandal.”
In July 2011, Webber’s organization contacted the Catholic Cathedral Association on behalf of the Kraus family and made a claim for the family’s painting, Webber said. Although providing proof of the Kraus’ ownership, Webber said the church has locked away the painting and repeatedly rebuffed restitution requests by the family on the grounds that it has no obligation to return it.
Germany was criticized earlier this year after a two-year, $2 million investigation into the ownership of about 700 Nazi-looted paintings determined the province of only five.
Because the statute of limitations has been cited by those refusing to return Nazi-looted property, the Senate Judiciary Committee recently held a hearing on legislation that would lift the statute for such crimes. Among those testifying was actress Helen Mirren,
who portrayed a Holocaust survivor’s successful quest for the return of her family’s Nazi-looted paintings in the movie "Woman in Gold."
“Restitution is more than reclaiming a material good,” Mirren testified. “When the Jewish people were dispossessed of their art, they lost their heritage — memories were taken along with the art. Having no memories is like having no family. That’s why art restitution is so imperative.”
Schneider of the Claims Conference said until heirs have the right to have their stolen property returned “all those who stand in the way of this goal align themselves with the Nazis rather than their victims.”