During World War II (WWII) many cherished works of art were either lost or stolen. Several great pieces of art were deliberately destroyed during the war and there is also the high likelihood that a good portion was destroyed during acts of war or in battle. This blog is going to focus on the art that was stolen during this period of history.
The Nazi party rose to power in the early 1930’s under Adolf Hitler. During the Third Reich’s regime of power they confiscated twenty percent of all artwork in existence and plundered hundreds of thousands of pieces (History of Nazi Plunder 2013). By some accounts about, one-third of all art works in Europe were acquired by the Nazis (Marchesano 1999). This act coined the term Nazi plunder which refers to the art theft and organized looting of European countries during WWII by military units known as Kunstschutz (History of Nazi Plunder 2013).
This occurred because of Nazi ideologies and beliefs during this time, which were influenced by Hitler. In some cases the Nazi’s did this because they believed these to be cultural artifacts that had been stolen from them. The other reason for their looting and plundering behavior was because they felt certain types of art were offensive. They wanted to stop these pieces of art which they termed “degenerate” from entering the country (Grimes 2010).
The Nazi’s not only looted artwork, they also looted and plundered other items such as gold, silver, and ceramics. Many of these items that were stolen by the Nazi’s during the war were actually recovered by the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program (MFAA). They later became known as the Monuments Men. This group was comprised of volunteer agents who were tasked with locating these items. They consisted of museum employees, curators, art professors and architects whose goal it was to inspect, repair, and prevent looting from Allied troops (History of Nazi Plunder 2013). Even today, there is an ongoing effort to locate pieces of artwork that have not been accounted for. Many of these could very well be in private hands as thousands of looted objects were never properly returned to their lawful owners (Marchesano 1999). There is a high likelihood they are scattered all over the world.
Now that I have given somewhat of a synopsis on the issue of lost artwork I would like to address the danger this artwork is in. When I say danger, I am referring to the effects of time and deterioration. Several of the pieces of art are historic and date to hundreds of years old. I would assume that the individuals that have these pieces of art are not well versed in art or artifact conservation. This brings up other questions as well. How are they currently displayed? Are they in proper cases to protect them from the elements? Is a painting just carelessly hung on a wall? If these individuals are concerned about conservation do they have the money to afford it? If they can afford conservation, how can they do it and stay under the radar?
I wonder if any of these individuals would even come forward. If I was in that situation I would be worried of potential legal action being taken against me or my family. Another concern would be the family name being tarnished and losing credibility. Hopefully this lost artwork can be found and properly conserved. This would allow others to enjoy them.
“Nazi Plunder of Art During World War II: Resources.” History of Nazi Plunder. December 9, 2013. Accessed February 18, 2015. http://libraryschool.libguidescms.com/history.
Grimes, J. 2010. “Forgotten Prisoners of War: Returning Nazi-Looted Art By Relaxing the National Stolen Property Act.” Roger Williams University Law Review 15(2): 521-536. Retrieved from LexisNexis Academic. Accessed February 18, 2015.
Marchesano, L. “An Art Historian’s Perspective.” National Archives and Records Administration. Revised June 24, 1999. Accessed February 18, 2015. http://www.archives.gov/research/holocaust/articles-and-papers/symposium-papers/an-art-historians-perspective.html.