Vanished without a trace?
Art historian Dr. Doris Lehmann on art lost during the Second World War
The Amber Room was a state room that was built into the Berlin Palace by order of the Prussian King Frederick I until 1712 and found its way to St. Petersburg as early as 1716 by King Frederick William I to Tsar Peter I in exchange for tall soldiers. After about two centuries, the German Wehrmacht captured the ornate room in 1941, installed it in the Königsberg Palace and removed it from storage again during the advance of the Red Army in 1944. Since then, there has been no trace of this legendary Amber Room except for a chest and a mosaic, which had most likely already been stolen by 1944. For Wuppertal art historian Dr. Doris Lehmann, the Amber Room is just one example of many paintings and sculptures that disappeared into secret hiding places, were stolen or annexed after the chaos of World War II. The recovery of these works of art continues to occupy the world's museums to this day.
The search for lost art continues
"Nothing is lost that cannot be found," says the accomplished scholar. "When we talk about war losses, we should first distinguish between works that were actually destroyed or damaged so massively that at most fragments of them remain. These are irrecoverable losses. They include, for example, Albrecht Dürer's famous murals in the Nuremberg Town Hall, which were burned during the war. Also considered lost are the three spectacular faculty paintings that Gustav Klimt painted for the auditorium of Vienna University. The monumental paintings, which could only be transported with great effort, were rolled up and stored together with other works of art in Immendorf Castle near Hollabrunn. There, soldiers of the SS were stationed, which included an explosive detachment that followed Hitler's so-called 'Nero order' when it left in May 1945 and caused a devastating fire with a time fuse." Although there are rumors of alleged looting, a clandestine recovery of the huge paintings is considered almost impossible for practical reasons, he said. The search for various works, of which it is not clear beyond doubt whether they are now actually destroyed, therefore continue abruptly. "Presumably also burned is Caravaggio's scandalous first version of the Evangelist Matthew for the Contarelli Chapel of the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome, which, like eight large formats by Rubens still missing today, was kept in the Berlin Gemäldegalerie. But certainty as to whether these works have been destroyed or lost is not something we have in these cases either." In each individual case, he says, there is a varying degree of hope that the artwork still exists and can therefore be found and returned. Lehmann cites an example: "In 2016, we were able to rejoice that Cologne Cathedral recovered a stained glass fragment, and in 2017, the stone head of a relief figure that had been lost in 1945 from the tympanum of the badly damaged St. Michael's Portal. An American soldier had taken the piece from the cathedral out of the rubble as a souvenir. After his death, the soldier's son found the stone fragment in his estate, had its provenance clarified, and returned it."
Protecting works of art during the war was difficult
"Attempts at protection were as varied as the endangered objects and the possibilities of their protectors," says Lehmann, because there was often a lack of packing materials and time for elaborate safeguarding measures. Therefore, as the war progressed, measures were adapted to the changing circumstances. "Initially, museums were closed to visitors, and the movable works of art stored there were packed and moved to basement rooms. In part, this was also done with holdings from the depots. Those who could, boarded up culturally valuable facades and removed movable parts. Smaller valuable works of art could be stored in safes or vaults." However, as the threat of bomb damage grew, people sought bomb- and looting-proof storage spaces, the expert explains. "If salvage transports were possible, then selected works of art were moved to bunkers, castle buildings and manor houses for storage. But caves and tunnels of salt and potash mines were also used. Quite famous is the Altaussee salt mine, where Hitler had the artworks placed for his planned Führer Museum." However, Lehmann emphasizes that removal from storage does not guarantee safety, because it is also known today that numerous paintings and sculptures burned in the Berlin Flak Bunker Friedrichshain, and that works of art suffered greatly from the indoor climate at some salvage sites.
The transfer of looted art
The Nazi regime confiscated thousands of works from castles, libraries, museums and private collections in the occupied territories. This is referred to as looted art, not all of which has yet been returned to its owners. Where did these many art objects disappear to? "About 1,400 temporary collection points were set up in various locations," the researcher explains. "Expropriated castles, palaces, manor houses, monasteries, churches and even schools were preferred as so-called 'salvage sites.' Expropriated art was also stored in rooms at Neuschwanstein Castle and the Neue Burg in Vienna. Art looted in Poland was collected in Fischhorn Castle, and works of art from France and the Benelux countries were gathered in the Jeu de Peaume building in Paris. Confiscated books were hoarded in requisitioned libraries and archives, such as the Kirov Library in Kiev and the Academy of Sciences in Minsk." Collection points such as a furniture warehouse in Oldenburg also served as temporary storage facilities, Lehmann knows, to pass on works of art. "Presumably millions of confiscated books were added to the holdings of German and Austrian libraries," he says. Museum collections were also allocated artworks."
The difficult path of repatriation
A famous example of successful restitution, or repatriation, is the Art Nouveau painting "Adele Bloch Bauer I" by Gustav Klimt, the story of which is even covered in a motion picture entitled "The Lady in Gold." The painting was expropriated by the Nazis in 1938 and sold to the Austrian National Gallery in 1941. The heiress, Maria Altmann, only got the work back through a lengthy process in 2006. Today, it is estimated that about 10,000 works of Nazi looted art have not yet been returned. Repatriations are extremely difficult, Lehmann knows, and says: "Each repatriation represents an individual case. We have to realize that these losses of cultural property occurred a very long time ago and that reconstructing the individual, situation-specific ownership at the time and the circumstances surrounding it are a particular challenge. This is one of the tasks of provenance research. Missing and inaccurate information causes difficulties, especially in cases of disputed ownership, when former owners or their heirs try to prove that a 'donation' or a 'sale' took place under duress and thus, as in the case of confiscation or expropriation, restitution or other just and fair compensation must be made in the sense of the Washington Principles of 1998." There is no uniform legal provision that applies to all countries involved, Lehmann knows, and while there is now a network of restitution commissions within Europe, many differences remain. "In Austria, for example, there is a restitution law according to which state museums must prove that their collection object is not looted art. In Germany, on the other hand, there is no such law; here, action is taken according to recommendations, and since 2003 the so-called Limbach Commission has been advising and mediating in disputed cases. This is the 'Advisory Commission in connection with the restitution of cultural assets seized as a result of Nazi persecution, in particular from Jewish ownership', which consists of honorary members."
In the case of the 'Golden Adele`, relevant information first had to be located through archival research; the case was complicated for various reasons. "Like other descendants, the heiress Maria Altmann lived in America because of the flight from the Nazis and thus far away. In other cases, there are sometimes language barriers. The restitution of the 'Golden Adele` should make us aware that there is still undiscovered looted art in museums as well as in private ownership and in the art trade."
Art confiscated by Allies stored abroad
After the war, a large number of works of art were also taken abroad by the Allies. Only gradually is light being shed on these actions. For example, the Treasure of Priam, which Heinrich Schliemann bequeathed to the Museum of Prehistory and Early History, was stored for decades in the depot of the Pushkin Museum and was not exhibited again until 1994. Moscow categorically rejects restitution, saying as late as 2019 that until World War II the principle applied that the victor was entitled to what came into his hands. "Russia invokes the principle of looted art, which we can trace far back as a historical phenomenon," Lehmann explains. "Even the trophies with which Napoleon filled the Louvre had their models. The Allies dealt differently with the works of art they confiscated at the end of the war." For example, the objects transferred to America were exhibited there and then returned. The pieces brought to the USSR went mainly to Moscow's Pushkin Museum and Leningrad's Hermitage, but also to other institutions. "Of the approximately 2.5 million works of art shipped to the Soviet Union, about 1.5 million arrived in the GDR in 1955-58, followed by additional museum property in 1977/78." However, Lehmann regrets that our knowledge of the remaining artworks is still not comprehensive. "Individual works thought to be lost have been or are being exhibited in Russian collections, and of other pieces it is at least known through exchanges between scholars* that they have been preserved. Presumably, many works of art are still stored in the special depots, which were kept secret and strictly secured for a long time. However, this does not mean that all objects are in good condition." Since 2008, he said, the German-Russian Museum Dialogue (DRMD) has been working on a project to evaluate the packing and transport lists of Soviet trophy brigades, which provide information about the cultural objects that were transported to and distributed in the Soviet Union as a result of the war. This should bring more transparency, he said, even though the artworks still in Russia would probably not be returned to German collections, in line with international property and international law. "With the so-called Duma Law of 1998, Russia declared the works of art confiscated in connection with World War 2 to be its property and states as its purpose the compensation of its losses caused by German destruction during the war. Politically, there is no consensus in this regard; the Federal Republic of Germany does not recognize this position. On the scientific level, regardless of the political and legal disagreements, international cooperation is being attempted to reconstruct which objects still exist, where and in what condition. The research also takes into account the losses of cultural property suffered by Russian museums due to removal and destruction, which accompanied the looting in the course of the devastation of numerous churches, monasteries and castles. If possible, objects are jointly researched and made accessible again, which means that they are exhibited in Russia, because in Germany our state would confiscate the works of art as its property. Unfortunately, this research work, for which a comprehensive publication was published as recently as last year, is not accompanied by barrier-free access to the relevant files, which would have to be consulted at the Russian State Archives of Literature and Art." How cooperation can be maintained or newly initiated under the currently changing conditions of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, she could not say.
The treasure of Priam
"As far as the treasure of Priamos is concerned, Schliemann did not behave fairly and justly by secretly recovering it and embezzling the contractually agreed share of the find," the scientist explains. That's why Schliemann had to answer for his actions in a trial and financially compensate the Turkish government, from which he withheld its half. Moreover, returning the treasure to Germany would not be without problems. "If the treasure came back to Berlin, the circumstances of the settlement reached in Schliemann's favor would probably be the subject of new discussions. But I do not expect the Museum of Prehistory and Early History in Berlin to get back the precious gold objects and jewelry, even if this demand is upheld. What we could be happy about instead is that numerous other finds from the Troy excavation have been returned, and even silver vessels from the so-called treasure, for which exciting research results are available. In this regard, too, scientists are relying on international cooperation."
The Von der Heydt Museum in Wuppertal also laments war losses
In Wuppertal, too, a large number of valuable art objects were evacuated from the Elberfeld Municipal Museum to the removal site at Ehrenbreitstein Fortress in Koblenz starting in June 1943. After World War II, 34 objects, including 10 paintings and 24 small sculptures and sculptures, were recorded as losses at the removal site. The works are presumed to have been stolen and are considered lost to this day. However, the search for them continues.
Works of art that have been reported stolen can be researched in the "Art Lost Register," an online database for which a fee is charged that currently documents around 700,000 missing objects," says Lehmann. Paintings are recorded there, as are antiquities, jewelry, watches and even looted art. "In cooperation with participants in the art market, the Art Loss Register checks objects that are to be traded. So if one of the missing objects is to be sold through an estate and, for example, is consigned for an auction or trade fair or to a pawnbroker, then it is possible to check in this way whether the work is recorded there. Museum looted art has also been rediscovered with the help of this check." In addition, the freely accessible Lost Art Database, which enables provenance research on the site "Deutsches Zentrum Kulturgutverluste" (German Center for the Loss of Cultural Property), is especially useful for search and find reports of looted art. The homepage of the Federal Cultural Administration also offers convenient access to information. The Provenance Database of the Federation contains the remaining stock of works of art and objects of decorative art that were assigned to the Central Collecting Point in Munich. "This was the collection point for looted art set up by the American Allies after the end of the war in 1945 in the former NSDAP party building, where objects were inventoried for the purpose of restitution. This database documents works still in existence that could not be returned because their provenance during the Nazi era has not yet been clarified." The records would be updated there whenever there were new leads.
One of the lost/stolen works from Wuppertal is the painting entitled 'Landscape` by Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot, painted between 1860/69, donated by the Elberfeld Museum Society, whose whereabouts have been unknown since 1945. A photograph of the painting still exists in a digitized auction catalog. With increasing digitization, Lehmann sees new opportunities to recover works thought lost. "There is the possibility of reverse image search, for example, via TinEye. That means you can upload your image file and have the search engine search the Internet for comparable hits. If the painting still exists, then it may well be that sooner or later someone will take a photo of it and display it on the Internet, for example on a museum page or on Facebook. In this case, the hit provides a clue to the origin of the other image file. In any case, it is a tremendous help that such a photo exists, because Corot painted many landscapes. For identification purposes, an uninformative title such as 'Landscape` would not provide a suitable basis."
In the same way as police cold-case investigations, scientists all over the world are searching for art treasures that were thought to be lost, and they are always surprised by spectacular finds. Whether the Amber Room will be so lucky remains to be seen.
Uwe Blass (interview from 10.03.2022)
Dr. Doris H. Lehmann is a trained photographer and studied art history, classical archaeology, provincial Roman archaeology and Latin philology at the University of Cologne, where she received her doctorate in 2005. In 2018, she habilitated at the Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn with a thesis on the strategies of dispute of visual artists in the modern era and has been a private lecturer since then. Since October 2018, she has been teaching art history as a research assistant at Bergische Universität.