Questions of Provenance—Nazi-era Germany

This post is the second to introduce a series that that will highlight some of the interesting provenance cases in the Milwaukee Art Museum’s Collection. 

Adolf HItler presents Hermann Goering with The Falconer, 1880, by 19th century Austrian painter Hans Makart. Library of Congress.

Adolf HItler presents Hermann Goering with The Falconer, 1880, by 19th century Austrian painter Hans Makart. Library of Congress.

To fully understand how important provenance research is for museums, we will need to look more at the period of art looting that is most familiar to many: the Nazi period in Germany.

When Adolph Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in 1933, the new regime began laying the groundwork which would allow for the systematic looting of cultural material in the lands controlled by the Reich—and would lead to 20% of the art in Europe being confiscated between 1933 and 1945.

In the quest to rid Germany of those considered inferior, the removal of property rights through laws became a key way to disenfranchise. For instance, Jews were required to register their property with officials. Then they were legally stripped of their citizenship, leaving the property “ownerless.” Then, this property could be confiscated by the government. In other cases, Jewish families were forced to sell their art for a fraction of its true value.

Art was of particular interest to Hitler and his right-hand man, Hermann Göring.

As part of his vision of cultural cleansing, Hitler sought to rid Germany of art created during the Weimar Republic (1924-1930). The decadence of the period was maligned and the art deemed degenerate. This included French and German Cubism, Expressionism, and Impressionism.

German loot stored in church at Ellingen, Germany found by troops of the U.S. Third Army. 4/24/45. National Archives RG 111-SC-204899.

German loot stored in church at Ellingen, Germany found by troops of the U.S. Third Army. 4/24/45. National Archives RG 111-SC-204899.

These modern arts were replaced with what was called “Volk art,” seen to be an expression of the collective and not an individual.  Also acceptable were Old Flemish and Dutch masters; medieval and Renaissance German art; Italian Renaissance and baroque art; eighteenth-century French art; and nineteeth-century German realists.

Art became a very important commodity, especially during the war. Exportation of paper money was banned, and art became the currency of those leaving German-held lands. Confiscated art, particularly art that was deemed degenerate, was sold by the government to raise money.

Hitler systematically looted art that he admired in preparation for his planned Führermuseum. This art museum would have been part of a major arts complex built in his hometown of Linz, Austria.

Meanwhile, Hermann Göring was building his own art collection at his county estate called Carinhall. It is estimated that by the end of the war, he had a collection of over 4,000 artworks.

As more and more art was taken from its owners and the destruction of World War II bombing spread throughout Europe, the Nazis began to store the treasures in caves and salt mines. Below is a famous photograph of Allied General Dwight D. Eisnhower accompanied by Gen. Omar N. Bradley and Lt. Gen. George S. Patton, Jr., inspecting art that had been stolen and hidden in a salt mine.

General Dwight D Eisenhower, Supreme Allied commander, inspects art treasures looted by the Germans and stored away in the Merkers salt mine. National Archives RG 111-SC-204516.

General Dwight D Eisenhower, Supreme Allied commander, inspects art treasures looted by the Germans and stored away in the Merkers salt mine. National Archives RG 111-SC-204516.

If you are interested learning more about the looting of artwork during World War II and the efforts to return it, the film The Rape of Europa is a good place to start.

As you can imagine, for both legal and ethical reasons, it is very important to know the provenance of artworks during the years 1933-1945. If an artwork was known to be in Europe before this period, it is crucial to try to figure out who owned it and when, because the probability is high that it was taken from its rightful owner.

Because the issue is almost overwhelming in its scope, there are a number of organizations and resources that offer assistance to museums, collectors, and those looking for lost artwork.

For instance, the Art Loss Register is the world’s largest private database of lost and stolen art, antiques and collectables. The Art Loss does not only deal with Nazi-looted art, but it is a key component of its scope. In general, this registry helps recover stolen works and deter future thefts. The Art Loss Register has helped recover over $320 million of stolen items.

As part of the Milwaukee Art Museum’s on-going provenance research, every year we submit European works from our collection that existed before 1945. The submissions include object information, the provenance we have on file, and a photograph. The researchers at Art Loss then search their records. Sometimes they can offer more information on the provenance; sometimes they come back with questions that require us to conduct more research. When due diligence has been done, the Art Loss confirms that there is no claim on the painting and keeps the information in their database.

This is the main way that the Milwaukee Art Museum makes sure we continue working on this major undertaking. It’s slow and complicated. Although more archival resources become available online regularly, and new discoveries are made (such as the artwork found in Cornelius Gurlitt’s home), there are plenty of repositories that require traveling around the world to see. And even then, you might not find anything.

Next time, we’ll take a look at one of our paintings that has an interesting provenance—including a Nazi connection.

Catherine Sawinski is the Assistant Curator of Earlier European Art. When not handling the day-to-day running of the European art department and the Museum’s Fine Arts Society, she researches the collection of Ancient and European artwork before 1900.

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