Before the outbreak of World War I, Adolf Hitler was a practicing artist. On two separate occasions, Hitler was denied admission to the Academy for Art Studies in Vienna. He took art very seriously and during his 12-year reign as German Führer, the international art industry was demolished. It has been estimated that Hitler stole over 750,000 artworks during the war. The years between 1933 and 1945 are a black hole in the art community, with thousands of pieces of art changing hands and going missing.
During World War II, the Nazis went on a rampage destroying and stealing European art. Priceless pieces of art were auctioned off at extremely low prices. This has created a major problem in the art community that remains evident today. People purchased stolen art and the victim’s families want their possessions back. In many cases, proving the legal rights to a piece of art is a difficult and time consuming process. This article will be examining 10 famous pieces of art that were stolen by the Nazis.
10. Saint Justa and Saint Rufina
Artist: Bartolome Esteban Murillo
Bartolomé Esteban Murillo is one of the most important Spanish painters in history. He was alive during the 17th century and is a cherished painter of the Baroque period of art. Murillo is probably best known for his religious works, but also painted many portraits of everyday life. In 1943, the Allied armies formed a coalition of men whose goal was to assist in the protection of valuable art and national monuments. The group became known as the Monuments Men. The Monuments Men were vital in the process of gathering stolen art and returning it to the rightful owner. As the Allied Forces liberated Nazi-occupied territories, Monuments Men were present at the front lines. In Germany alone, U.S forces found approximately 1,500 repositories of art and cultural objects, with hundreds-of-thousands of artifacts. Some of the most identifiable pieces of art were immediately returned to their rightful owners. However, thousands of artifacts were never claimed or stolen.
Monument Men organizations still exist today, with the goal of tracking down and returning stolen art. Recently, a member of the organization stumbled upon an old picture taken during World War II. It showed a photo of Murillos famous pair of paintings titled Saint Justa and Saint Rufina. Immediately the connection was made with the Meadows Museum in Dallas, which houses the paintings. The Meadows Museum holds one of the largest collections of Spanish art outside of Spain, with masterpieces by some of the world’s greatest painters. After some intense research, it was confirmed that the museum had the two painting and they were in fact stolen by the Nazis during World War II.
This was accomplished by examining the back of the picture frames, which contained a number R1171. This number is consistent with art stolen by Germany and stands for Rothschild, 1171, which is the 1,171st object stolen from the Rothschilds. The Rothschild family was looted in France, 1941. Like all stolen art, a major legal battle has pursued, as the Meadows Museum legally purchased the portraits at an auction, but the paintings whereabouts before the auction are confusing. The two portraits are estimated to be worth more than $10 million.
9. Painter on the Road to Tarascon
Artist: Vincent van Gogh
Vincent van Gogh was a Dutch painter that died in 1890 at the age of 37. He is one of the most renowned and well known painters in the history of art. On January 31, 1933 Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany. One of his first actions was the “cleansing of the German culture,” which included book burnings and the labeling of degenerate art. Degenerate art included all types of modern artistic expression. Any artist, past or present, that was not seen as having Aryan blood was deemed degenerate. Hitler made it a high priority to track down all degenerate art and steal it. If you were labeled a degenerate artist then you were not allowed to paint.
Nazi soldiers would even make routine house calls to ensure that some artists were not painting. The abuse was inflicted on many modern German painters, including Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, who was labeled degenerate and had all of his over 600 works sold or destroyed. Kirchner would commit suicide in 1938. The Nazis destroyed hundreds of famous paintings and the ones that survived were featured in a “Degenerate Art Show.” It was claimed that this show was meant to incite further revulsion against the “perverse Jewish spirit.” The famous pieces of art were crowded into small rooms and often displayed with a hanging cord. According to the history books, the first room contained art considered demeaning of religion, the second featured works by Jewish artists in particular, and the third contained works deemed insulting to the people of Germany.
Some of the artists featured in the show were Alexander Archipenko, Marc Chagall, James Ensor, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, and Vincent van Gogh. After the exhibit ended, the famous pieces of art were either destroyed or sold at auctions. A large amount of “degenerate art” by Picasso, Dalí, Ernst, Klee, Léger and Miró was destroyed in a bonfire on the night of July 27, 1942 in Paris. In 1939, a stolen self-portrait by Vincent van Gogh was auctioned at Gallerie Fisher, Lucerne, for $US 40.000. One of the most famous paintings to be burned during World War II is the Painter on the Road to Tarascon by Vincent van Gogh. It is not known for sure how the painting was burned, but it is thought to have perished when the Allied forces bombed Magdeburg, setting fire to the Kaiser-Friedrich Museum, which contained stolen art.
The Painter on the Road to Tarascon was lost forever when it became a causality of the Second World War, but the portrait has left a lasting impression. It remains one of the most cherished pieces of art that was lost in the war. The painting shows a lonely portrait of Vincent van Gogh traveling. The painting was a heavy influence on artist Francis Bacon, who described it as a haunting image of van Gogh, showing him as an alienated outsider. Vincent van Gogh was quoted as saying “Real painters do not paint things as they are…They paint them as they themselves feel them to be.”
8. Portrait of Dr. Gachet
Artist: Vincent van Gogh
In 1933, the famous Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh was put on Hitler’s list of “degenerate artists.” Many of van Gogh’s most famous pieces of art were stolen from their owners and displayed in mock museums. One of these paintings was the famous Portrait of Dr. Gachet. The month before Vincent van Gogh committed suicide, he painted two different copies of the Portrait of Dr. Gachet. He wrote a letter to his brother regarding the painting, “I’ve done the portrait of M. Gachet with a melancholy expression, which might well seem like a grimace to those who see it… Sad but gentle, yet clear and intelligent, that is how many portraits ought to be done… There are modern heads that may be looked at for a long time, and that may perhaps be looked back on with longing a hundred years later.”
In the case of the Portrait of Dr. Gachet, the Nazis didn’t steal it from a private collector, but stripped the art from the Städel museum in Frankfort, Germany. The Städel acquired the portrait in 1911 and it was confiscated in 1937. Nazi leader Hermann Göring realized the value of the art, so he decided to sell it and make a profit. The Portrait of Dr. Gachet was auctioned off and purchased by a German collector who quickly sold the art to Siegfried Kramarsky. Kramarsky was a Jewish financier that fled to New York in 1938 to escape the Holocaust. He purchased the art for $53,000.
On May 15, 1990, exactly 100 years after the paintings creation, the family of Siegfried Kramarsky sold their copy of the Portrait of Dr. Gachet for $82.5 million. At that time in history, it was the most expensive piece of art ever sold. It was purchased by Ryoei Saito, who was a Japanese businessman. Upon Saito’s death in 1996, the painting was thought to have been sold, but no information was made available to the public. Various reports in 2007 claimed that the painting was sold to the Austrian-born investment fund manager Wolfgang Flöttl, but this was never confirmed.
Many questions remain regarding the history of the Portrait of Dr. Gachet. In this specific case, a Jewish man was able to obtain the stolen art. If a high powered German, Russian, or American businessman had profited off of the art, I think more people would have taken offense. The second version of the Portrait of Dr. Gachet is currently in the possession of the Musée d’Orsay, in Paris, France.
7. Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I
Artist: Gustav Klimt
Gustav Klimt was an Austrian born Symbolist painter. During his lifetime, Klimt created many portraits, murals, and sketches. The primary subject of his work was usually the female body. In 1904, Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer hired Gustav Klimt to create a portrait of his wife Adele. The work took Klimt three years to complete and the portrait is made of oil and gold on canvas. Adele Bloch-Bauer died of meningitis in 1925. In 1938, all of Ferdinand Block-Bauer’s property was put under “Protective Custody” by the National Socialist party. During the war, everything was taken away from Ferdinand and he eventually died in Zürich, Switzerland in November of 1945.
The will of Ferdinand Block-Bauer’s made no mention of donating his property to a museum. After the war, the three living Bloch-Bauer siblings attempted to retain some of the famous paintings from the Austrian government, who were given the pieces of art after Nazi Germany was liberated. Nothing happened for decades until 1998 when the Austrian government decided that they would return art that had been illegally seized by the Nazis. However, in order to get the paintings returned, rightful ownership needs to be proved in a court of law, which can be expensive. In 2006, the Austrian court ruled that Block-Bauer heir Maria Altmann was the rightful owner of the Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I and four other paintings by Gustav Klimt.
Portraits by Gustav Klimt are extremely rare and valuable. After regaining the rights to the Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, Maria Altmann decided to sell it. In June of 2006 the portrait became the highest selling piece of art up to that point in history. American businessman Ronald Lauder purchased the painting for $135 million and placed it in his Neue Galerie, which is located in New York City. The Neve Galerie is highly dedicated to pieces of Jewish art that were stolen from the Nazis and recovered. Ronald Lauder was quoted as saying that the Portrait of Adele Block-Bauer I is his museums “Mona Lisa.” In November of 2006, the second painting that Gustav Klimt made of Adele Bloch-Bauer (Adele II) sold for almost $88 million. Eventually, all five of the Block-Bauer’s Klimt portraits were sold, with a grand total of approximately $325 million.
6. Foundation E.G. Bührle
When researching the history of famous art, it is shocking the amount of paintings that have a large gap in documentation around the time of World War II. Hundreds of valuable portraits changed hands during the war, but the specifics surrounding the sales are unknown. This entry will not be examining one specific piece of art, but rather a man named Emil Georg Bührle. Bührle was a born in Pforzheim, Germany in 1890 and was a German cavalry officer in the Imperial army from 1914 to 1919. In the 1920s, Bührle became the CEO of a large company and was moved to Zürich, Switzerland. Bührle was always interested in art and he started a huge collection during World War II. He took the opportunity of war to build one of the most prestigious private art galleries in the world. Today, his museum is known as the Foundation E.G. Bührle and is located in Zürich, Switzerland.
The collection of art at the museum is quite impressive and contains many famous painting and sculptures from Old Masters and Modern artists, including works from Paul Cézanne, Edgar Degas, Paul Gauguin, Édouard Manet, Claude Monet, and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. You might say that there is no proof that any of these paintings are from stolen victims of the Holocaust. However, after World War II, Emil Georg Bührle was forced to give back 13 paintings to French-Jewish families who had their property taken away during the war. A book was put together with a list of artworks reported stolen and Bührle had 13 of them. The amount of valuable artwork that Bührle obtained at a low price is astonishing. The art collection housed at the Foundation E.G. Bührle is worth hundreds-of-millions of dollars.
The Foundation E.G. Bührle houses Der Sämann by Vincent van Gogh, Der Selbstmörder by Edouard Manet, Junge Frau by Amedeo Modigliani, and countless other famous works. On February 10, 2008, one of the largest art heists in history took place at the museum. Armed gunman stormed the museum shortly before closing and stole four famous paintings valued at $162.5 million dollars. The most expensive painting taken was The Boy in the Red Vest by Paul Cézanne, valued at around $80 million. The three other paintings stolen were Count Lepic and His Daughters by Edgar Degas, Poppies near Vétheuil by Claude Monet, and van Gogh’s Blossoming Chestnut Branches. To date, the van Gogh and Monet portraits have been recovered, while the other two remain missing.