Missing Masterpieces - Art during WW2
A standard customs check on a train from Zurich to Munich in 2010 was somehow, an undetected treasure trove of looted Nazi art. The discovery, when made, was an unexpected twist of fate. An ordinary elderly man, Cornelius Gurlitt was investigated after having an abnormally large amount of money. A customary investigation of his residence revealed a Pandora’s box of priceless masterpieces, believed to be lost in the war. Amongst international intrigue, historians and collectors were stupefied and the media was thrown into a frenzy. Who was this mysterious man? How could lost art be found almost 7 decades after the war? And was there hope of other missing masterpieces resurfacing?
The case can be traced back to the late 1930s when Germany’s military prowess thrived under Hitler’s leadership and occupied much of Europe. Hitler’s meteoric rise to fame and love for art was the catalyst that spurred the systematic looting and pillaging of art across Europe. In his youth, Hitler had been an unsuccessful artist himself. Backed with the unrestrained power and fortified glory of the Nazi Regime, he envisioned transforming his hometown of Linz, Austria into the ‘Art’ Capital of the Third Reich. With Europe’s best architects and curators under his command, he laid out meticulous plans for galleries and museums, collectively known as the ‘Führermuseum.’
While Hitler loved the traditional art created during the Renaissance and Impressionist periods, he also believed that modern art was ‘degenerate’ and confiscated it from all German museums. Hildebrand Gurlitt was one such art historian and dealer tasked with trading the ‘degenerate’ works to raise funds for German coffers. With permission to travel and trade, Gurlitt not only acquired works for the future Führermuseum
but also developed his collection, primarily with modern art.
By 1941, among the dead, destroyed, and deported were priceless artworks. Bombing had wrecked museums, galleries, and rightful owners of these works, paving way for the Nazis to loot and steal them. The Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR) - a specialised branch of the Nazi party - were explicitly tasked with helming the plundering and acquisition of the art. The Galerie Nationale du Jeu de Paume in Paris was the primary storage for all the stolen art but the Nazis also hid their loot in salt mines across Germany and Austria - the temperature and humidity of which were ideal to store artwork. It is believed that Hermann Göring, a prominent member of Hitler’s inner circle, visited The Jeu de Paume museum almost 20 times and took two rail carts worth of art himself.
Historians believe that the looting of art by the Nazis is the greatest displacement of art in human history. As the war waged on, hope of ever recovering the stolen art seemed to dwindle. Then came the Monuments Men. Formed by the Allied Forces, the Monuments Men were responsible for the protection and recovery of cultural artifacts and relics like artwork, churches, and museums. Consisting of men and women across 13 nations, The Monuments Men were not armed soldiers. They were curators, collectors, and historians who risked their lives and saved almost 5 million works of art. Their duties included the documentation and inventory management of the works recovered and stolen and preventing the capturing of art. One of their greatest successes was keeping the Mona Lisa from Nazi clutches by expertly hiding it across houses in the French countryside. With no equipment or financing, the Monuments Men pioneered the restoration of modern European art and curation by saving priceless relics of the past.
Notable members of the group included Rose Valland, an art curator at the Parisian Jeu de Paume museum who eavesdropped on the Germans and passed along their plans to the french resistance. George Stout, a world war one veteran and Harvard art conservator, pioneered new techniques of conservation.
By 1945, the Nazis amassed an extensive collection of art in a network of mines in Altaussee, Merkers, and Seigen across Germany and Austria. The treasure recovered was unlike anything seen before. Over one billion euros in Nazi gold was discovered. At least 6,000 paintings and 137 sculptures were found. The Monuments Men recovered approximately 3 billion dollars worth of art from the Altaussee mine alone. On discovering Van Eyck’s masterpiece “ The Adoration of the Lamb”, Professor Lincoln Kirstein wrote, “The miraculous jewels of the Crowned Virgin seemed to attract the light from our flickering acetylene lamps… Calm and beautiful, the altarpiece was, quite simply, there.” Some famous works recovered include Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Lady with an Ermine', Vermeer’s ‘The Astronomer’, Vincent Van Gogh’s ‘Langlois Bridge at Arles’ among others. However, there are still thousands of pieces missing today such as Raphael’s ‘Portrait of a Young Man’ estimated to be worth 5 million dollars and Degas’ ‘Five Dancing Women’. The thrilling escapades of the Monuments Men were memorialized in Hollywood cinema in the 2014 film “Monuments Men”.
Eventually apprehended by Allied authorities, Hildebrand Gurlitt managed to negotiate his release by proving his Jewish heritage. He would continue to curate his collection, amassing almost 1500 works including names such as Van Gogh, Monet, Gaughin amongst others. The bulk of his collection survived with his son Cornelius who lived a quiet, reclusive life for almost forty years without being discovered until 2010 when his story took international media by storm. Presently, most of the Gurlitt collection resides in the Museum of Fine Arts Bern in Switzerland. Some works were returned to their original owners and others were sold for millions of dollars in auctions.
Today, the work and legacy of the Monuments Men lives on - propelled by initiatives and expeditions carried out internationally by museums and historians. Although progress is negligible, cases like those of Cornelius Gurlitt bring hope that other masterpieces lost in the war might one day resurface and rejoin their contemporaries in museums awaiting their return.