Cashing Out by Neill Lochery — Europe’s Nazi art scam

Sunday Times 10 December 2023
By Max Hastings

Portugal wasn’t the only country to make a fortune by trafficking gold and art looted by Hitler’s forces, including masterpieces by Goya, Cézanne and Van Gogh

The Second World War was a catastrophe for every belligerent nation except the United States. Some of those countries that contrived to stay out of it, however, became rich. The story of Switzerland is well known. Many millions in Jewish victims’ and Nazi mass-murderers’ cash wound up in the cantons, protected by banking secrecy law and the absence of shame from Swiss DNA.

Swedish business did pretty well too. In 1941 the Stockholm government bent its neutrality sufficiently to allow a German infantry division to transit through their country to the Russian front. Spain’s ministers and generals were bribed by Churchill to keep their country out of the conflict. Incidentally, this permitted its bloodstained dictator Francisco Franco to die in his bed in 1975.

Much less well known, however, is the tale recounted here by Neill Lochery, of neighbouring Portugal. Its dictator António Salazar played a wily wartime hand, making himself useful to all parties, and enriching some of his countrymen in the process.

In 1953 Portugal acquitted itself from Allied moral indictments by signing an agreement to return just four tons of Nazi bullion that the country had received in return for massive shipments of wolfram, which facilitated Hitler’s armaments manufacture. But postwar estimates suggest that this represented only 1 per cent of the swastika-stamped gold bars transported to Lisbon’s banks.

Moreover, according to the author, beyond government-to-government transactions Portugal became the main clearing-house for massive consignments of cash, gold, jewellery and works of art dispatched by Nazis to safe havens across the Atlantic. The American-inspired 1944-46 Operation Safehaven sought to halt the traffic and restore property to Germany’s victims or their surviving relatives. Yet it proved extraordinarily difficult to trace the provenance of loot even after the war ended. Secret auctions had been held, sometimes in the homes of rich Portuguese, after which paintings and sculptures disappeared into houses in which some artefacts remain to this day.

The looted and mostly unrecovered masterpieces allegedly include works by Goya, Cranach, Rubens, Van Gogh, Rembrandt, Cézanne, Titian and El Greco. Many of them, including paintings owned by the Rothschilds, had been paid for by dealers, albeit at knockdown prices.

One dealer, Arturo Reiss, reported being approached in a Madrid hotel in December 1944 by a stranger who offered to sell him some fabulous work for $10,000. Reiss, suspecting that it was stolen, reported this to the British embassy, but the Ministry of Economic Warfare in London said that it lacked resources to investigate individual cases, which Lochery calls “a costly oversight”.

Postwar Portugal provided some prominent Nazis with documents enabling them either to enjoy comfortable local retirements, or decamp to Argentina or Brazil. Whenever the Americans or British charged Salazar with dirty dealing, he reminded them of their debt to him for allowing them to run a vital Atlantic airbase on the Portuguese Azores. In the new Cold War, like Franco, he also made himself seem indispensable to the West.

It was not that the Allies failed to take art thefts seriously. They sought to reclaim works for their cultural value and in justice to the dispossessed. On May 5, 1945 the US Foreign Economic Administration produced a preliminary report entitled Looted Art in Occupied Countries, Neutral Countries and Latin America. The director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York suggested at least $2 billion’s worth had been stolen.

According to the author, however, in the Americans’ triumphalism about the achievements of their “Monuments Men” in Germany, they overlooked far larger quantities of art and specie that had long since left the defeated Reich. Lochery has specialist knowledge of Portugal and Brazil, and describes the former as “the country that has said the least” about the booty it secured from the Nazis, “and got away with the most”.

This book certainly adds to historians’ understanding of Portugal’s role in the war, but it is weakened by its focus on Salazar’s nation. There is no discussion of Switzerland, probably the most important conduit for ill-gotten gains, albeit a much-chronicled story.

Lochery says much about Hitler’s former intelligence chief Walter Schellenberg and his interrogations by the Allies. But his story is familiar, and relevant to the flight of loot through Portugal and Spain only because Schellenberg had extensive dealings with their politicians. Seeking to brand himself as the acceptable face of the SS, in 1945 he was shocked, on entering the British Latchmere House interrogation centre, to find himself treated as a common war criminal rather than an honoured guest.

In all conflicts, some bystanders profit mightily from providing goods and services to belligerents. During the First World War, Norway’s shipping fleets and Holland’s role as a port of access for Germany proved immensely serviceable to both nations. Japan’s post-Second World War recovery advanced by giant strides thanks to the Korean War. Thailand prospered from the long Indochina struggles.

It is repugnant to be reminded that brokers and parasites made fortunes by clinging to Nazi coat-tails, but so they did. Before Pearl Harbor, Churchill raged about the vast sums that the US extracted from the European democracies, albeit without doing many favours to Hitler. Neutrality is often good business, as today’s Gulf states can testify, as they profit from the Ukraine conflict through sanction-busting to Russia.
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