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Ongoing Efforts to Recover and Return Nazi Plundered Art
Why the Nazi elite were obsessed with collecting stolen art and how we’re still grappling with these crimes today
By Courtney Suciu
During World War II, Nazi officials systematically looted about 600,000 paintings throughout Europe, many of them along with ceramics, books and religious treasures from the private collections of Jewish families. Today, approximately 100,000 plundered artworks remain missing and efforts are ongoing to locate these pieces and return them to their rightful owners.
But, decades after the original thefts were committed, it’s not so simple to determine who the rightful owners are. We take a closer look at a recently resolved case involving a Pissarro cityscape worth tens of millions and the descendants of a woman who was forced to surrender the painting in her escape from Nazi Germany. Spoiler alert: a U.S. district court judge ruled against the family, a controversial decision that demonstrates the complex moral and legal issues we continue to grapple with today.
We also explore what was behind the Nazi obsession with looting and collecting prestigious artworks. What efforts have been made to locate and return missing pieces? And what resources are available to researchers who want to learn more on this topic?
The Case of Pissarro’s “Rue Saint Honore”
When Lilly Cassirer and her husband fled Nazi Germany in 1939, their exit visa cost them an oil painting that had belonged to her family since 1898 – a work by Impressionist Camille Pissarro which today is valued at approximately $30 million, according to the Los Angeles Times1.
Then two decades ago, the acclaimed Parisian cityscape, “Rue Saint Honore, apres-midi, effet de pluie," was spotted in a Spanish art museum, the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid, spurring a lawsuit by Cassirer’s descendants seeking to reclaim possession of the painting.
The family opted to sue in the U.S., the newspaper reported, because of a 2004 law that states, “victims of theft can seek remedy in U.S. courts under particular circumstances: The plaintiffs must show that the property was taken in violation of international law and that it is ‘owned or operated’ by an agency of a foreign state.”
“It seems likely (based on evidence, including markings on the back of the painting) that [the purchasers of the Pissarro] knew it was looted — or suspected that it was and chose not to investigate,” the Times reported. “That should simplify matters for the judge.”
Or so it would seem. However, U.S. District Court Judge John F. Walter ruled in favor of the museum in early May 2019, arguing that the museum could not have known the artwork had been stolen or suspected its lineage. While, he added, the museum might have a moral obligation to return the painting to the family, Walter claimed he did not have the authority to order them to do so.
The Los Angeles Times2 explained, “two decades ago, Spain and nearly four dozen other countries signed a nonbinding international agreement, the Washington Principles, dedicated to reaching ‘a just and fair solution’ to cases of looted art when the owners or their heirs can be identified.”
“The museum should work with the Cassirer family to come up with a reasonable solution,” the paper argued. “That doesn't necessarily mean returning the painting. The museum could offer to pay the family in order to keep the painting. But refusing to recognize any obligation to Cassirer’s heirs is shameful.”
Walter’s ruling, the Times pointed out, “was not just a blow to the family members who filed the lawsuit, but also a troubling indication of how difficult it is to carry out the restitution of artworks stolen in that era.”
Why the Nazi elite were obsessed with collecting art
As hundreds of similar cases continue to wend through court systems in the U.S. and elsewhere, and with tens of thousands of looted artworks estimated to still be missing, one can’t help but wonder what was the motivation behind this grand-scale theft? The plundering of artworks clearly wasn’t a matter of a few officials nabbing valuable property to have for their own but a systemic effort by the German government to confiscate art. But why? And what does this say about the significance of art?
These questions are explored in-depth by scholar Jonathan Petropoulis in his article “Not a Case of Art for Art’s Sake: The Collecting Practices of the Nazi Elite3.”
“During the Third Reich, members of the Nazi elite learned to approach the visual arts, and specifically the project of collecting art, as a means of articulating their fundamental ideological tenets, a mode of legitimatizing authority, and an expression of their position within the social and political elite,” Petropoulis argued.
In other words, building prestigious collections of works by artists such as Pissarro, specifically chosen because they signified elevated taste and intelligence, was one way top officials demonstrated their roles in “political and cultural spheres” of Nazi Germany.
This was no more apparent than at the very top. Petropoulis wrote, “In both spheres [Hitler] gave vent to megalomania as he sought to dominate the world and to amass the greatest art collection of all time.”
According to the scholar, by 1945 Hitler’s collection included 6,755 paintings, the majority of them by the Old Masters including Leonardo da Vinci. These works were looted from “Gestapo-guarded depots,” museums and private collections, an operation legitimized by listing the stolen works as “sichergestellt” – “secured by ‘enemies’ of the Reich, including Jews, Freemasons and communists.”
Many other National Socialist leaders came to possess comparatively more modest art collections (military leader Hermann Goring’s inventory at the end of World War II included 2,000 paintings, sculptures and tapestries) as a way to emulate the Fuhrer. In addition, Nazi propaganda claimed the Aryan race to be the bearers of culture, and collecting art was not only intended to demonstrate the cultural/racial superiority of elite Nazi leaders, but to place them well above lesser officials in the party.
The legacy of Ardelia Ripley and efforts to recover looted art
Before the end of World War II, international efforts to locate stolen art were underway. Most famously known as the Monuments Men, an Allied team initially made up of about 30 civilian art experts was formed to hunt across Europe, “often alone and under fire,” in search of paintings, sculptures, heirlooms and other looted artifacts, according to Tom Mashberg of The New York Times4.
Their feats were the subject of the 2014 film The Monuments Men, directed by and starring George Clooney but, as Mashberg pointed out, “less heralded have been the contributions of women like [Ardelia Ripley] Hall, who were pivotal in helping rescue Europe’s art during the war and long after German surrender.
“Ms. Hall was no soldier,” Mashberg explained. Rather, he described her as “a petite, white-gloved scholar” whose “help was more academic in nature…She became the driving force at the State Department for postwar restitution between 1946 and 1962.”
(In her honor, a vast body of documents related to war-time plundering and recovery was named the Ardelia Hall Collection; a portion of the Ardelia Hall files are available in a new ProQuest History Vault module*).
Prior to her work with the U.S. State Department, Hall “was trained as an art historian and had spent most of her life in Massachusetts, including 11 years at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston,” wrote Victoria Reed, author of the article “Ardelia Hall: From Museum of Fine Arts to Monuments Woman5.” She specialized in Chinese and Japanese art and penned lyrical essays about various works in publications such as The Christian Science Monitor6 in the early 1940s.
Just a few years later, the scholar’s career took an unlikely turn, leading to a position as Fine Arts and Monuments Advisor where her work “focused on carrying out the State Department’s objective of returning looted artwork that had found its way to American soil,” Reed wrote. “By 1954, 66 cases had come under her purview, comprising nearly 1600 items.”
These included a Peter Paul Rubens portrait of St. Catherine which she returned to a museum Dusseldorf, Germany in 1952 after it was discovered in Los Angeles.
Hall served in this position until her retirement in 1962, going on to do similar work recovering art and antiquities during and after the Korean War. Even after she left the State Department, Hall expressed concerns about the theft and destruction of artifacts, such those that were stolen during the Vietnam War. Reed credits her efforts for influencing a 1999 U.S. restriction on the importation of goods looted from Cambodia.
Concluding her profile of Hall, of whom little has been written despite her extraordinary story, Reed wrote:
The art world is indeed fortunate that Ardelia Hall had the intelligence and perseverance to face the challenges she encountered, ultimately leaving behind a legacy, and a vast body of documentation that allows a new generation of historians, art historians, and researchers to continue the work that she began.
For further research
Learn more about ProQuest History Vault.
*This new module includes of the Ardelia Hall files, along with records from the State Department’s Office of the Assistant Legal Adviser for Educational, Cultural, and Public Affairs related the looting of art and assets from Europe, as well as a series of FBI and State Department files on the Safehaven program, the goal of which was to deny any “safe haven” for Nazi-looted assets, as well as records of the Tripartite Commission for the Restitution of Monetary Gold.
Be sure to also see the video collections on Nazi looted art.
- Who Has the Right to Nazi-Looted Art. (2018, Dec 13). Los Angeles Times. Available from ProQuest Central and ProQuest One Academic.
- The Fate of Nazi-Looted Art; A Judge Has Ruled that a Spanish Museum Can Keep a Stolen Painting. Can That Possibly Be Fair? (2019, May 02). Los Angeles Times. Available from ProQuest Central and ProQuest One Academic.
- Petropoulos, J. (1994). Not a Case of "Art for Art's Sake": The Collecting Practices of the Nazi Elite. German Politics and Society. Available from Periodicals Archive Online.
- Mashberg, T. (2014, Feb 02). Not All Monuments Men Were Men. The New York Times. Available from ProQuest Central and ProQuest One Academic.
- Reed, V. (2014). Ardelia Hall: From Museum of Fine Arts to Monuments Woman. International Journal of Cultural Property, 21(1), 79-93. Available from ProQuest Central and ProQuest One Academic.
- ARDELIA, R. H. (1942, Nov 02). Article 2 - no title. The Christian Science Monitor (1908-Current File). Available from ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
Image: Germans display Botticelli’s masterpiece, Camilla and the Centaur, from the Uffizi. (Photo Credit: National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. / Public Domain).
Courtney Suciu is ProQuest’s lead blog writer. Her loves include libraries, literacy and researching extraordinary stories related to the arts and humanities. She has a Master’s Degree in English literature and a background in teaching, journalism and marketing. Follow her @QuirkySuciu