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.
Editors Note: This article was written in July 2010, but we have republished it with the release of Monument Men and the interest that movie has drawn to the theft of art 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.
5. Altarpiece of Veit Stoss
Sculptor: Veit Stoss
Veit Stoss is a famous German sculptor who passed away in 1533. His career spanned the transitional period between the late Gothic and the Northern Renaissance style of architecture. Stoss primarily worked as a wood sculptor. In the early part of his career he was approached by the people of Kraków, Poland and asked to build a magnificent altarpiece. He agreed and developed the Altarpiece of Veit Stoss, which is the largest gothic altarpiece in the world. It measures 13 m high and 11 m wide when the panels are open. The piece is covered with incredible statue figures, which are more than 12 ft. tall and are carved from the tree trunk of a lime.
Prior to the German invasion of Poland in 1939, Hitler was well aware of the historic altarpiece and unjustly felt that it was his because Veit Stoss was a German sculptor. Before the invasion of Poland, the altarpiece was taken apart and hid in various locations. However, it was still discovered by the Nazis and stolen. A German unit called the Sonderkommando Paulsen located the crates containing the altarpiece and had the statues and panels shipped to Berlin. It was kept at Nuremberg Castle.
During the war, many members of the Polish resistance relayed the message that the altarpiece was being held at Nuremberg Castle. Luckily, it was not significantly damaged during the liberation of Nazi Germany and was recovered by Allied forces. The Polish National Treasure was immediately returned and in 1957 it was placed in St. Mary’s Church, Kraków, Poland, where it remains today. The altarpiece underwent restoration from 1946-1949 to fix the structural damage caused by the Nazis.
4. Place de la Concorde
Artist: Edgar Degas
Edgar Degas is considered one of the founders of the Impressionism art movement. He was a popular French artist that lived predominately during the 19th century. After the collapse of Nazi Germany, the Red Army was the first to invade Berlin. During this time, the Soviets discovered hundred of hidden repositories of art. The Soviet government has been criticized over the years for not reporting many of these discoveries. In 1991, it became known that some paintings looted by the Red Army in Germany had been put on display at the Hermitage Museum located in Saint Petersburg, Russia. After intense pressures, the museum announced in 1994 that they had displayed some pieces of art that had been looted from German private collections.
One should realize that art taken from German homes and underground storage facilities in 1945 consisted of a large amount of stolen goods. The exhibition “Hidden Treasures Revealed” premiered in 1995 at the museum. It consisted of 74 separate paintings that were displayed for the first time, including the world famous Place de la Concorde by Edgar Degas. Place de la Concorde was painted by Degas in 1875. It depicts the cigar smoking Vicomte Ludovic-Napoléon Lepic, his daughters, and his dog. It also shows a solitary man in Place de la Concorde in Paris.
Place de la Concorde has always been considered one of Degas signature portraits. It was thought lost after World War II, but showed up at the Hermitage Museum in 1995. The famous painting remains on display at the Hermitage. Another painting that appeared at the Hermitage in 1995 is the van Gogh masterpiece White House at Night. White House at Night was also thought to be lost after the war. It was painted six weeks before van Gogh’s death. In December 2004, another looted work was discovered at the museum, the Venus disarming Mars by Rubens. The French master Henri Matisse also has many of his early paintings on display at the Hermitage. During World War II, Matisse’s paintings were widely distributed and stolen. Today, they can be found in museums all over the world. The story of how the Place de la Concorde survived is not documented to the public. It is simply listed at the Hermitage as “provenance unknown.”
3. The Astronomer
Artist: Johannes Vermeer
Johannes Vermeer was a Dutch painter who lived from 1632-1675. During his lifetime, Vermeer was moderately successful and has since become one of the most well known painters of the Baroque period of art. He tended to paint portraits of domestic middle class life and many of Vermeer’s paintings were of scientists. Hitler was a big follower of Johannes Vermeer and made it his ultimate goal to own all of his paintings. In 1940, one of Vermeer’s most cherished works, The Astronomer, was owned by a French man named Edouard de Rothschild. After the German invasion of France, the painting was stolen by the Nazis. The Astronomer became one of Hitler’s prized possessions and was meant to be the focal point of the Führermuseum. The Führermuseum was a large museum complex that Hitler planned on creating. It was meant to store and display all of the plundered European art. A black swastika was stamped on the back of The Astronomer, where it remains today.
The Astronomer was finished by Vermeer around 1668. The art was created with oil on canvas, and measures 51cm x 45cm. The painting is linked with another famous Vermeer portrait named The Geographer. Both paintings are thought to portray the same man, which could be Anton van Leeuwenhoek. The Astronomer shows incredible detail. In the painting the book located on the table is turned to a specific page, which is a section that is advising the astronomer to seek “inspiration from God.”
In the portrait, the picture on the wall shows the finding of Moses. After the war ended, The Astronomer was returned to the Rothschild’s. It was then donated to the famous French museum Louvre in 1982. It remains one of the museum’s most prized possessions. Vermeer’s The Geographer had a bit of a different fate. The Geographer is located at the Städel, which is one of the largest art museums in Germany.
2. Amber Room
Designer: Andreas Schlüter
Andreas Schlüter was German baroque sculptor and architect that lived at the end of the 17th century. Along with Gottfried Wolfram, who was a Danish amber craftsman, Schlüter was the one that designed the Amber Room. Construction of the Amber Room began in 1701 and the room was installed at Charlottenburg Palace, home of Friedrich I, the first King of Prussia. As the name implies, the Amber Room was sculpted out of amber, which is a gemstone made from fossilized tree resin. The room also contained many jewels, paintings, and gold. In 1716, the Amber Room was given to Peter the Great to celebrate peace between Russia and Prussia, and an alliance against Sweden. In 1755, Tsarina Elizabeth of Russia had the room transferred to the Catherine Palace, where Frederick II the Great had more amber sent for reconstructions. Many renovations took place on the Amber Room throughout the 18th century, ultimately measuring 55 square meters and containing over six tones of amber.
During World War II, Hitler was very familiar with the Amber Room and felt that it should be in German possession. The Nazi army reached the Amber Room after taking control of the city of Leningrad. Hitler sent a group of men to dismantle the priceless piece of art. The Soviet army was unable to properly hide the Amber Room because it was crumbling as they tried to dismantle it. The Nazi army put the Amber Room in 27 separate crates and sent it to Königsberg in East Prussia. On January 21, 1945 Hitler ordered the relocation of many pieces of art. German leader Erich Koch was in charge of the Amber Room and may have decided to move it out of the city. Later in the war, Königsberg was heavily bombed by the Royal Air Force and the Soviet military. The Amber Room was never heard from again.
The disappearance of the Amber Room is one of the great mysteries of World War II. Some reports have claimed that the room survived the war, while others have stated that it was destroyed by bombings or hidden in a lost bunker. One theory has the Amber Room being loaded onto a German ship or submarine that was sunk by Soviet forces in the Baltic Sea. Many different groups have been organized over the years in hopes of discovering the lost treasure. In 2008, German treasure hunters claimed to have found the Amber Room. The discovery of an estimated two tons of gold and silver was made, but it was hard to gain access to the site because of deadly booby traps.
The finding was never confirmed to be that of the Amber Room and some reports indicated that clues to the whereabouts of the Amber Room were discovered at the site. Recently, the Amber Room Organization has announced another discovery that was made in the mountains about 30 miles east of Weimar. A German ARO spokesman named Henry Hatt has stated that he knows where the Amber Room is hidden. Apparently, he claims that the treasure was transported to the county of Saalfeld and hidden in an old underground mining chamber. This story has not been confirmed.
1. Madonna of Bruges
Michelangelo was an Italian Renaissance painter and sculptor. He lived from 1475-1564 and is most widely known for his sculptures Pietà and David. In the early 1500s Michelangelo created the masterpiece Madonna of Bruges. The sculpture is made of marble and is 128 cm in dimension. Madonna of Bruges is a depiction of Mary with the baby Jesus. It is noted for being largely unique in comparison to other statues of Mary and Jesus created during the time of Michelangelo. Most depictions show a smiling Mary looking down on a baby Jesus. However, in Madonna of Bruges, Mary doesn’t cling to Jesus or even look at him. She has a steady gaze down and away from the child. It seems that Mary knows the fate of her son.
The sculpture is also notable for being the only Michelangelo work to leave Italy during his lifetime. It was purchased by a family of wealthy cloth merchants from Bruges. Bruges is a city located in the northwest corner of Belgium. The Madonna of Bruges has only been removed from Belgium on two separate incidents in history. The first came in 1794, after French Revolutionaries had conquered the Austrian Netherlands. At that time, Napoleon ordered the people of Bruges to pack up the Madonn and ship it to France. The sculpture was returned after the defeat of Napoleon. The second removal occurred in 1944 when German soldiers were retreating from the area. The soldiers smuggled the Madonna to Germany in a group of mattresses transported by a Red Cross truck. Two years later the sculpture was found by Allied forces and returned to Bruges.
The Madonna of Bruges is located at the Church of Our Lady in Bruges, Belgium. It has been kept at the Church of Our Lady since 1514 and this is where the sculpture belongs and will hopefully stay forever. It is a cherished piece of art and is kept behind a piece of bulletproof glass. Visitors are also required to stay 15 feet away from the sculpture. These measures were taken after the 1972 attack on Michelangelo’s Pietà. In 1972, a mentally disturbed geologist named Laszlo Toth attacked the sculpture, which is located at St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. Toth took a geologists hammer and bashed the Pietà while screaming “I am Jesus Christ.” It suffered significant damage and many pieces of marble were broken from the statue. To make things worse, people stole these pieces, which included the nose of Mary.