Nazi Art Hoard Just the Tip of the Iceberg for Lost Art

The 1,400 looted Nazi artworks found in a Munich apartment are just a small percentage of the thousands that disappeared. What else is out there waiting to be found?


Before the Nazis founded the ERR, their military unit dedicated to art and archive theft; before Hitler conceived of converting the entirety of his boyhood town of Linz, Austria into a “super-museum” containing every important artwork in the world; and long before the Allied armies, aided by the Monuments Men, liberated hundreds of thousands of looted artworks, the Nazis were stealing from their own people. Thanks to George Clooney’s upcoming film, a fictional drama based on historical fact (but bending it to the will of Hollywood), the world has become familiar with the “Monuments Men:” a group of several-hundred Allied officers from the art community, who were charged with locating, protecting, and recovering art and monuments that were in the line of fire during the Second World War. But fewer will be aware that the conquered European nations were not the only—nor the first—victims of Nazi art theft.

Last week in London, I spoke as part of an art crime symposium, held at the V&A Museum and organized by ARCA (the Association for Research into Crimes against Art). While the symposium focused on art recovery, rewards, and art forgery, the talk of the coffee breaks and beers afterward was all on the recently-discovered Gurlitt collection of Nazi-looted art: some 1,400 works, many of them masterpieces, which had been stashed in an apartment in Augsburg, Germany since the war’s end. What has been less-frequently cited is that these works were not stripped from the walls of French and Italian museums, churches, and private homes. The majority of these works were “appropriated” (read as: stolen) by the Nazis before the war began. And this horde of 1,400 treasures, with an estimated worth of around $1 billion or higher, is just the tip of the iceberg.

There is much, much more buried treasure to be found.

The Nazi Party used art as propaganda, and also feared that certain types of art, deemed “degenerate,” would have a corrosive influence on the German people. They saw it as their duty to “save” the world from this sort of art. What the Nazis did not care for was largely contemporary and abstract art, the likes of Chagall and Dufy and Klee, to name a few. Some art was condemned as being “too Jewish,” though this was a nebulous concept. The Nazis swayed between considering Rembrandt in this category, and then thinking of him as among the greatest Aryan painters, and they also thought that Aryan German Otto Dix was “too Jewish”—they were a party of fickle tastes. It was more about the way art looked: it should be as naturalistic as possible, and be made by Teutonic or Scandinavian artists. This is why Jan van Eyck’s Adoration of the Mystic Lamb was the number-one most-wanted work by Adolf Hitler and his second-in-command, and rival art hunter, Hermann Göring. The two raced each other to steal select artworks, and Göring swiped the van Eyck from a castle in France after it had been seized for Hitler, only for Hitler to wrest it back.

When the Nazis came to power, prior to the start of the Second World War, they confiscated this so-called “degenerate” art from their own citizens. They packed some of it into a touring exhibition meant to act as a sort of freak show, the works hung in intentionally awkward ways, and the walls plastered with phrases like “It is from this that the Nazi Party has saved your children.” Other works were sold abroad, infamously at an auction at the Galerie Fischer in Lucerne, Switzerland, where numerous American and British collectors scooped up discounted masterpieces, proceeds from which funded the Nazi war machine. Leftover works were burned in enormous bonfires. The Gurlitt stash, it seems, is comprised of “degenerate” art that was seized from even Aryan German citizens and Nazi party members, but which was neither sold abroad nor burnt.

What to do with the Gurlitt works? The reason for the oddly-timed release of news of the discovery (which several conspiracy theorists have noted is convenient for the promotion of Clooney’s film) is actually due to a leak. The German media learned of the find before the authorities were ready to go public with it. They were surely trying to locate as many rightful owners as possible before the media free-for-all, but news got out. Great efforts will be made to locate the original owners of these works, but it is a daunting task—one faced by the Monuments Men after the finding of the Alt Aussee cache, some 12,000 masterpieces from around Europe destined to feature in Hitler’s “super museum.” Arthur Tompkins, a New Zealand judge who teaches a course on art in war on ARCA’s Postgraduate Certificate Program in Art Crime and Cultural Heritage Protection, has suggested that an ad-hoc International Art Crime Tribunal be established, to return the art to its rightful owners in a transparent way, and to make unbiased decisions about where objects should go. “The Tribunal should be entrusted with the task of resolving the fate of each work of art,” Judge Tompkins explains, “not only by deciding the historical and legal claim or claims to it, but also by explicitly evaluating, and giving equal weight to, the moral claim of the claimant. This is crucial – in the past claims to art looted in wartime have been undermined or destroyed by an insufficiency of legal evidence to establish prior ownership, where the moral claim for return of looted art is clear.” The German authorities will have their hands full, even with the good news of this discovery. But what does it tell us about the world of lost art, beyond the confines of Cornelius Gurlitt’s apartment?

There is much to be said for the nomenclature of art loss. Art historians use the terms “lost” and “extant.” Extant means that we know where the art is located (though it may be in a private collection, and therefore practically inaccessible). The opposite is “lost.” This may mean destroyed, stolen, misattributed, mislaid—in short, we don’t know where it is. I was recently asked by Artfinder, an independent art marketplace, to create a sort of wish-list of valuable lost art, ten works that would be wonderful to find again. My list, dubbed a “Museum of Lost Art,” was featured in the Times of London. I was asked how I chose those ten works, from the Hercules by Lyssipus to the disintegrated frescoes by Giorgione and Titian on Venice’s Fondaco dei Tedeschi. To be honest, there was an embarrassment of choice. I have, in the works, both a book and television program that aim to teach the entire history of art using only lost masterpieces. A museum of lost art would be larger than the world’s art museums combined, and feature never-seen objects by the greatest names in the art world. Lost art offers a parallel universe, with riches to match those in all of our museums today, and then some.

But “lost” art may be found again. For many of the pre-Modern artists, we know of far more of their oeuvre than is extant: in many cases, only around one-third of their known creations are still with us. That means that two-thirds are out there: they may have been destroyed, or they may simply await finding. There are scores of high-profile examples of famous lost masterpieces resurfacing. The National Gallery of London holds a Masaccio that was hidden in the basement of an Italian church to keep it from the Nazis, stuffed in a stack of empty frames and covered by a tarp. Whoever hid it there died, or forgot, or never returned, and there it lay until some ten years ago, when it was stumbled upon. Within the past three years, two lost Leonardo paintings have been found: Salvator Mundi, which everyone agrees is by the master, and La Bella Principessa (which divides the experts, largely because a suspected art forger was involved in its recent history—it looks convincing to me). Another lost Leonardo, his wall painting Battle of Anghiari¸ or whatever is left of it, will shortly be found where it was buried for safe-keeping six centuries ago, behind a Vasari fresco in Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio. Caravaggio’s The Taking of Christ was found in the shadowy corner of a Jesuit seminary in Dublin, clogged with dirt and thought to be a copy after Caravaggio—it is now the star attraction of the National Gallery of Ireland.

But for every successful treasure hunt, there are works that are indeed lost forever. The firebombing of Dresden consumed hundreds of masterworks from the Dresden Art Gallery, which few now remember was once on a par with the Louvre, Prado, and the Uffizi—it is still a fine collection, but much of its pride was burned by Allied bombs. Caravaggio’s Palermo Nativity, stolen by Cosa Nostra in 1969, is almost certainly destroyed. Depending on which mafia informant you believe, it was either damaged so badly during its theft from the Oratory of San Lorenzo that it was later discarded, or it was crushed during an earthquake and subsequently fed to pigs. Not every story can have a happy ending, although even with these works, hope springs. Perhaps some of the Dresden works were hidden away underground and escaped the firebombs? Perhaps both mafia informants were wrong, and the Caravaggio is waiting in some shadowy corner, like its cousin in Dublin, for fortune to bring it to light?

Some estimate that around 5 million cultural heritage objects were looted during the Second World War. Tens of thousands were recovered by the war’s end, among them the greatest works of civilization, like Michelangelo’s Bruges Madonna and Van Eyck’s Adoration of the Mystic Land, the twin focal points of the upcoming “Monuments Men” film. But for every stolen art cache that was found, from Merkers to Alt Aussee, there are scores that remain undiscovered. Stolen treasures lay buried or locked away. Time and luck will reveal some of these caches, probably similar in scale and import to the Gurlitt “collection.” This discovery resurrects 1,400 dead souls—and there is reason for optimism that others will follow.