Of all dishonourable art thefts in history, the one perpetrated by the Third Reich has been the most monumental, involving the looting of over 20% of Europe’s art by the end of World War II. Partly due to the systematic assault on modernism, partly deriving from Hitler’s desire to open a “Führermuseum” in his hometown of Linz, Austria, where to exhibit all of the most valuable and acclaimed works of European art, Nazi Party members began looting and hiding artworks in places like the Musée Jeu de Paume in Paris and Nazi headquarters in Munich as well as in caves and mines in Merkers, Altaussee and Siegen.
This attack on culture led to an Allied response, and volunteers began hiding and protecting works held at national institutions (private collections were often seized with little protection in place). From Paris’ Louvre Museum to the British National Gallery, workers and resistance volunteers began to move artworks into safehouses to guard them against Nazi plunder. From countryside monasteries to a massive slate quarry in Wales, European art was hidden in the unlikeliest of places to protect the cultural heritage of numerous countries and centuries.
Despite these efforts, countless thousands of artworks were stolen from individual and institutional owners – circulating around the personal homes and professional offices of some of the most powerful players in the Nazi movement. We follow the fate of several famous works of art throughout World War II and beyond.
The Ghent Altarpiece by Hubert and Jan van Eyck
Notoriously described as the most stolen piece of art in history the Ghent Altarpiece by Hubert and Jan van Eyck was one of the first works that utilised oil paint instead of tempera. After Napoleon spirited the work to France and the Germans took it during World War I, it was stolen again during Nazi rule in World War II. The piece drew the attention of Hitler when he decided he wanted it for his Führermuseum, while Hermann Wilhelm Göring, his right-hand man, also came to covet the work. Göring first stole the Ghent Altarpiece for his Carinhall estate before Hitler took it for himself and stored it in the Altaussee Salt Mines in case of Allied air raids. The piece was ultimately recovered after the war by the Monuments Men, an Allied World War II platoon established to find and return looted art to their original owners.
Madonna of Bruges by Michelangelo
Madonna of Bruges, the only work by Michelangelo that left Italy during his lifetime, was made between 1501 and 1504. The sculpture of the Virgin and her Son was brought to Bruges, Belgium, by merchants and installed in the Church of Our Lady. In 1944, as German forces were retreating from Belgium and the Netherlands, the work was reportedly stolen and brought to Germany in a Red Cross truck, likely with the goal of adorning the Führermuseum. Only a year later, in 1945, the Monuments Men found the masterwork in the Altaussee salt mine, a favourite hiding spot of Nazi-looted art. The Madonna of Bruges has since been reinstalled at the Church of Our Lady in Bruges.
Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I by Gustav Klimt
The most famous example of Gustav Klimt’s iconic golden period, a classic of the Viennese Jugendstil style, his first portrait (of two) of Adele Bloch-Bauer, wife of Austrian industrialist Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer went missing in 1936 when the family fled Austria and left behind their art collection. Looted by the Nazis, the work was ultimately sold off to the Austrian State Gallery. The piece became the focus of much attention when the niece of Adele Bloch-Bauer attempted to regain it, understandably arguing that its restitution should result in her ownership of the work. The trail and work centre prominently in the 2015 film The Woman in Gold, highlighting the painful process of restitution that still continues for many works of Nazi-looted art to this day.
Portrait of a Gentleman by El Greco
El Greco’s Portrait of a Gentleman was part of the personal collection of Julius Priester, a Jewish industrialist, when the collection was looted by the Gestapo in 1944. After turning up in 1952 in New York City, the work went through several deals and collectors hands before resurfacing again in 2014. The Commission for Looted Art in Europe recovered this famous El Greco in 2015 and restored it to the Priester family, over 70 years after its theft. It was just one of the 3,500 works handled by the commission since its founding in 1999.
Lady with an Ermine by Leonardo da Vinci
Painted by Leonardo da Vinci in 1489, Lady with an Ermine depicts Cecilia Gallerani, mistress of Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan. Records show that the painting was brought back from Italy by Adam Czartoryski in 1798 to Krakow, Poland. Stolen in 1939 by the Nazis, the work was first brought to Berlin but quickly returned to Krakow in the hands of Hans Frank, an early member of the German Workers’ Party (precursor of the Nazi Party). Part of a tumultuous journey typical of the chaos that surrounded the end of World War II, the da Vinci was ultimately rescued from Hans Frank’s home and was returned to the Czartoryski Museum in Krakow.
Two Riders on the Beach by Max Liebermann
Two versions of Two Riders on the Beach by German-Jewish painter Max Liebermann exist and both go down in history as some of the most impressive German Impressionist works. Of the two paintings, one went into a collection in New York City, while the other was purchased by Jewish industrialist David Friedmann. Seized in the aftermath of the Kristallnacht pogroms in 1938, it entered the hands of Nazi art dealer Hildebrand Gurlitt, who worked on building the collection for the Führermuseum. Surprisingly, he was able to keep the painting after the war until, in 2012 it made headlines when his son Cornelius Gurlitt was discovered to be in possession of over 1,200 works in his Munich apartment, including innumerable works with contested provenance that had been considered lost. Among other masterpieces, the loot included works by Chagall and Matisse and was sold for £1.86 million in 2015.
Le Boulevard Montmartre, Matinee de Printemps by Camille Pissarro
The personal collection of Max Silberberg, a Jewish businessman from Breslau, was so prolific, encompassing works by Manet, Monet, Pissarro, and Cezanne, that the Nazis went out of their way to personally seize his lot. Included within his collection was Camille Pissarro’s Le Boulevard Montmartre, Matinee de Printemps: one of many Pissarro’s Impressionistic Montmartre paintings. Though much of the collection disappeared during the war and Max Silberberg tragically died at Auschwitz, this particular painting was restored to his son and daughter-in-law in 2009, just four years before Gerta Silberberg’s death. It was sold in 2014 for £19.7 million.
Ashes II by Edvard Munch
Likely looted by the Nazis in order to be sold to collect funds for their reign of terror, Edvard Munch’s Ashes II would have been considered ‘degenerate art’ due to its expressionistic nature. Hitler himself was reportedly critical of Munch’s work, and at least 82 pieces by the artist were confiscated from German museums in 1937 alone. Though Ashes II is now held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, its past and provenance are completely unknown, mirroring the fate of countless other works of this time.
Still Missing: the Continued Restitution of Nazi Looted Art
Though the artworks covered here have been recovered, and some returned to the descendants of their rightful owners, it is worth remembering that over 30,000 pieces of art are still missing. It is possible that many have been destroyed, while others could be hidden from the public or are circulating privately for large profits. Innumerable cases saw the restitution contested or even impossible, and the owners of these masterworks never lived to see their return.