Looted Art & Monuments Men

Central Collecting Point_CVR

 

Iris Lauterbach (a Munich-based professor, who specialises in art and architecture in the Nazi era) has written a study of the work of the Monuments Men, basing it on extensive archival research.

In 1944 the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFA&A) section was founded. The team became known as the Monuments Men; a term made famous by the 2014 feature film starring George Clooney. Initially, it was planned that the Allies would agree a common system but there were political differences between the powers. While the American and – to a lesser extent – the British authorities were led by principles of neutrality and fairness regarding looted items on German territory, the French and Soviets were less neutral. Indeed, the Soviets were unwilling to give up much of the loot they took custody of in Germany and restored only some of it to Germany and other nations. Many items are retained in former Soviet lands and considered compensation for the massive cultural losses the USSR suffered during the Axis Powers’ invasion. This matter is still a sensitive subject for Russian and German authorities.

Founded 1944, they followed the frontline Allied forces as they fought, attempting to do what they could rescue treasures from not only the German military but also plunderers among the Allied forces and local populations. Their efforts were restricted by the strategic and material demands of a still active war. The first priority of the Monuments Men was to locate and recover art from the haphazardly improvised caches (over 1,500 of them) scattered across Germany, many in old mines and basements. Herman Goering’s lordly spoils were found in army trucks. Göring had been the process of trying to remove them from the advancing Allied forces when the convoy had been left stranded. Much of the art was not packed adequately and had been damaged by damp and rough handling. Bundles of Old Master drawings were found rotting in forests. Caches had been predated by plunderers.

Bavaria was in the American sector of occupation (comprising Bavaria, Württemberg-Baden and Hesse) and Munich was the regional capital of Bavaria. It made a natural centre for American operations. In a severely damaged city, the US Army discovered that the Nazi party building and the Führerbau (Leader’s building) to be in good condition and used them as centres for collecting, assessing, storing and administering looted art. The use of the buildings proved to be both practical and symbolic, by turning the centres of Nazi control into places were restitution of culture was administered. The buildings were designated the Central Collecting Point (CCP).

The Monuments Men pledged to act not as conquerors set on doing their own plundering but as careful stewards and impartial arbiters. It was partly their objects that led to the curtailment of a touring exhibition of “appropriated” masterpieces from Germany being returned to Germany.

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The staff was headed by qualified American art historians and curators, many of whom had studied under German art professors, some in exile from Nazi Germany. Senior officers and soldier guards were American; they were assisted by denazified German experts (including curators, conservators photographers and technicians), handymen and secretaries.

Every day precious objects (ranging from coins, books, jewellery, tapestries, furniture and historical objects to fine art of every description) were brought to the CCP. Much of it was in poor condition, damaged by theft, transportation and neglect. The art treasures that passed through the CCP were dazzling. They included the Van Eyck Brothers’ Ghent Altarpiece, Leonardo’s Woman with Ermine, Michelangelo’s Bruges Madonna, Rodin’s Burghers of Calais and masterpieces by Rembrandt, Rubens, Bruegel, Cranach the Elder, Titian, Tintoretto, the Impressionists and every major European painter. Historic books and scientific archives were included, along with the Hungarian monarchical regalia. A more melancholy group of artefacts were collections of Judaica confiscated from the liquidated Jewish populations of central and Eastern Europe.

The organisation classed items into three categories: A) art looted from public organisations in outside of Germany, B) art looted from private individuals, C) art removed from German institutions for purposes of safeguarding it. The art was photographed, described, numbered and given an index card. Some cards are reproduced in the book. The workload was huge. To assist curators a 9,600-book reference library was in existence at the CCP by November 1945. Assistants trawled the extensive NSDAP archives of art acquired for German museums, in particular Hitler’s planned museum in Linz, as well as paperwork for the personal art collections of Hitler, Göring and senior Nazis. Some of the art was stolen; some of it was acquired at extortionately low prices from owners who ranged from the eager to unwilling. (The MFA&A considered any items acquired during German occupation of a country to be illegal (i.e. stolen, coerced or unfairly acquired).) Germans who had assisted in these campaigns of acquisition were interrogated. Some were careerists, others were committed. A handful apparently retained loot and were involved in the black market for art. Among others, dealer Hildebrand Gurlitt escaped serious punishment because the MFA&A did not have access to sufficient documentation to determine the extent of his involvement in dealing looted and extorted art. As we know now, he retained a horde of stolen art which was left to his son and only recently discovered. The CCP also had to contend with theft from the depot. The widespread poverty, currency suspension and unemployment meant that theft and bartering were endemic in everyday life all over Germany.

Claims for restitution to non-German owners were made via their national representatives, with a few exceptions being Jews who fled East and inhabitants of the Soviet-occupied Baltic states if the claimants were resident in the West. Otherwise, national representatives would come to the CCP and collect works claimed by their nationals. Private claimants in Soviet-occupied nations generally had their returned property possessed by their state.

Returning work to former Axis powers Italy and Austria proved more difficult, with delegations engaged in protracted wrangling and diplomatic negotiation. The Bavarian Government considered these countries to be claiming too zealously and the CCP position wavered, dependent on the views of senior officers. The US government agreed to some of these dubious claims against the objections of the CCP. German claims were considered only after foreign claimants had petitioned.

The administrative and logistical difficulties of dealing with so many claims meant that mistakes were made. One error was not the result of a slip but a crime. When a Yugoslav art dealer called Ante Topić Mimara arrived to claim items for Yugoslavia, his claims were processed and the objects were taken before it was discovered that many of the items were not from Yugoslavia at all. It seems that a female German staff member at CCP assisted Topić and left with him, later to become his wife. She had apparently secretly provided Topić with a list of unclaimed works at CCP of unclear provenance for him to claim for Yugoslavia. The MFA&A had been duped in what was effectively a heist. The only major scandal in the MFA&A’s history was covered up by the US government, which failed to recover the items. Some of Topić’s private collection is now in a Zagreb museum but much of it has disappeared.

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By August 1947 the MFA&A had restituted material appropriated by the Nazis in the following proportions: 65.4% to France, USSR 12.8%, The Netherlands 8.6%, Austria 4.5%, Hungary 3.3%, Poland 2.9%, and other countries 2.5%. Record keeping was difficult when huge quantities of materials arrived daily. Some of the items were mistaken believed to have been looted but turned out not to have been. Objects were sometimes lost (or stolen) and uncatalogued items surfaced randomly. This was in part due to the closure of other centres and the transferral of unclaimed work to the Munich CCP.

The CCP finally closed on 1 September 1951. 33,188 items were restored to claimants between August 1945 and September 1952. To put that into context one should know that the French authorities estimated that approximately 100,000 items had been stolen from French institutions and citizens, of which 61% were returned by 1950. Today Poland lists 60,000 stolen objects as still missing. (The CCP only handled objects in the American zone of occupation, with some foreign caches coming there. The figures naturally exclude looted items recovered by the other Allied powers and objects destroyed or undiscovered.) In 1952, custodianship of looted property at CCP was turned over to organisations under control of the Bavarian State. Some owners agreed to their objects being bought by the Bavarian State. Heirless items were divided up between various countries of origin, some retained in storage, some given to museums, others auctioned. Eventually, unclaimed works of little value were auctioned. The residue of unclaimed work of significance is now in the ownership of the FDR and the Bavarian State.

Chapters are short, each focusing on a different aspect of the CCP’s activity, arranged chronologically. Lauterbach includes information on the later use of the building as a venue for exhibitions of historic and contemporary art and design. This was done to promote new, non-Nazi art (most obviously abstract art, which absolutely contravened National Socialist aesthetic policy) and to foster American-German co-operation.

The book is liberally illustrated with fascinating photographs of the CCP at work. We see a Leonardo resting casually in a rack, a Titian Danaë stacked against a Claude Lorrain landscape and the Bruges Madonna being manhandled. Snapshots show smiling soldiers smoking cigarettes and posing next to Old Master portraits. Staff are shown working and relaxing and we get an idea of the conditions and attitudes towards the many aspects of the restitution of looted artefacts.

Lynn Nicholas’s The Rape of Europa (1994) is the standard account of the Nazi looting of art. The Central Collecting Point adds much detail to efforts to conserve and restitute that loot. This is a translation of the original German-language book, published in 2015. Lauterbach has extensively used the archives of various institutions – not least the Zentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte, her home institution – but has elected not to note precise sources for her information about the internal workings of the CCP contained in the MFA&A records. That is pragmatic but will disappoint scholars wishing to peruse the original documents. This title provides a balanced and informative overview of the subject. The prose style and numerous photographs bring the difficult and important work of the Monuments Men to life.

 

Iris Lauterbach, Fiona Elliott (trans.) The Central Collecting Point in Munich. A New Beginning for the Restitution and Protection of Art, Getty Research Institute, January 2019, 320pp, 238 mono illus., hardback, £55/$70, ISBN 978 1 60606 582 2

 

© 2018 Alexander Adams

View my books and art here http://www.alexanderadams.art

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Publication: “Culture War: Art, Identity Politics & Cultural Entryism”

I am pleased to announce the publication of my book “Culture War: Art, Identity Politics and Cultural Entryism” (Societas/Imprint Academic).

“Why has identity become so central to judging art today? Why are some groups reluctant to defend free speech within culture? Has state support made artists poorer not richer? How does the movement for social justice influence cultural production? Why is post-modernism dominant in the art world? Why are consumers of comic books so bitterly divided?

“In Culture War: Art, Identity Politics and Cultural Entryism Alexander Adams examines a series of pressing issues in today’s culture: censorship, Islamism, Feminism, identity politics, historical reparations and public arts policy. Through a series of linked essays, Culture War exposes connections between seemingly unrelated events and trends in high and popular cultures. From fine art to superhero comics, from political cartoons to museum policy, certain persistent ideas underpin the most contentious issues today. Adams draws on history, philosophy, politics and cultural criticism to explain the reasoning of creators, consumers and critics and to expose some uncomfortable truths.”

180pp, 3 b&w illus., Societas/Imprint Academic, March 2019, ISBN 978-1845409982

Although the book will be published on 1 March, and I never normally mention such things this far ahead, there are two reasons for announcing now: 1) Amazon is offering a 35% discount (for UK sales at least) so you could save money by pre-ordering, and 2) indications are that the first edition will sell out, so if you want to read the book as soon as it comes out you would do well to order now.

Link to publisher’s selling page: http://books.imprint.co.uk/book/?gcoi=71157100083870

Link to Amazon book description:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Culture-War-Identity-Politics-Cultural/dp/1845409981/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1536611127&sr=8-1&keywords=culture+war+alexander+adams

New Order

“Murder Machines

This year a sculpture by Sam Durant entitled Scaffold was erected in a sculpture park managed by Walker Art Center, Minneapolis. The wooden sculpture juxtaposed elements of playground-activity structures and gallows. One minor aspect of Scaffold referred to the hanging of Dakota Native Americans in 1862 as part of struggles between the Dakota Nation and the American government. That reference had been missed until it was pointed out, at which time a campaign to remove the sculpture was begun by the Dakota. “This is a murder machine that killed our people because we were hungry,” said a member of the Dakota Nation, equating Scaffold with an actual gallows that hanged members of the Dakota. In May the museum destroyed Scaffold and the artist renounced his work.

This year there was a protest by some black artists against the display at the Whitney Biennial of a painting of murdered black activist Emmett Till. Black activists lobbied to have the painting by Dana Schutz, a white artist, removed as offensive and hurtful. “The subject matter is not Schutz’s,” said one protestor, claiming ownership and authority over the representation of a historical event.

In these two cases, activists claimed ownership over aspects of history in order to suppress art works. In one case it resulted in the destruction of art. Pressure groups have noticed the weakness of curators, administrators and politicians and their unwillingness to protect art from censorship. Sympathetic towards notions of social justice, administrators sometimes submit to emotional blackmail by groups which demand censorship…”

To read the full article visit The Jackdaw: http://www.thejackdaw.co.uk/?p=1750

Trouble at the Tate

“With the opening of a new building adjoining the Tate Modern Bankside site, and the appointment of a new director, Dr Maria Balshaw, things seem buoyant at the Tate. Yet below the surface the organisation is headed towards crisis.

“Although you wouldn’t know it from the fawning accolades of newspaper profilers, Balshaw’s appointment alarms art historians. Balshaw, the new director of Britain’s largest fine-art museum, with four venues and £1.3 billion in assets, is not an art historian but a student of literature who attained a doctorate in critical theory, specialising in American authors. Critical theory is an academic branch of postmodernism that, preferring to concentrate on art’s ideological and social role, sees no qualitative difference between high and low (or popular) art forms. This might be a problematic grounding for the director of Britain’s largest collection of high art. Hitherto in her roles as head of the Whitworth and Manchester art galleries, she has demonstrated no detailed understanding of fine art or any willingness to defy fashion, exhibiting and collecting art on an agenda underpinned by identity politics and feminism.

“Indeed, Balshaw is a proactive and politically driven individual who will not be taking a backseat position. She has previously made statements that women and minority artists should be given a more prominent position in the arts world. As explained previously on spiked, the relatively low number of female artists in the Tate collection is due to historical restrictions on women artists that no longer exist. However, for feminists, that statistical imbalance justifies the promotion of women artists regardless of the quality of their art.

“If the Tate was a stable or manageable organisation, then a figurehead leader would be a viable proposition. Unfortunately, the Tate has huge and ever-increasing problems…”

Read the full article on on Spiked (25 September 2017) online here: http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/trouble-at-the-tate/20339#.Wcjg-LKGPIU

This is an extract of a long essay titled “New Order”, available in The Jackdaw, issue 135, available via: http://www.thejackdaw.co.uk

A Guerilla Attack on Artistic Value

“”Is it even worse in Europe?’, a campaign launched by arts pressure group Guerrilla Girls at the beginning of October, implicitly criticises the apparent lack of diversity of the artists represented in European museums. ‘We focus on the understory, the subtext, the overlooked and the downright unfair’, state the Guerrilla Girls. ‘Art can’t be reduced to the small number of artists who have won a popularity contest among bigtime dealers, curators and collectors.’

“This is familiar territory for the Guerrilla Girls, who have been challenging the relative dearth of female artists in museum collections for years. Their principal charge is that institutional bias has led to the underrepresentation of female artists and artists from minority backgrounds.

“But the assumption that institutions are biased against certain sections of society doesn’t hold up….”

Read the full article on gender politics, identity politics and fine art on Spiked website, 29 October 2016 here: http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/a-guerrilla-attack-on-artistic-value/18903#.WBSUe_ldU5k

Hermann Nitsch: Blood on the Museum Floor

“Another example of censorship through petition power has come to light this month. An exhibition by Actionist Austrian artist Hermann Nitsch was scheduled to take place in February at Fundación Jumex, Ecatepec de Morelos, on the outskirts of Mexico City. But on 31 January it was cancelled. This followed an online petition against the Nitsch display, though, in its announcement, Jumex does not link the petition to the cancellation. The Nitsch exhibition has been replaced by a group exhibition of works by other artists in the Jumex collection – a mix of contemporary and modern art, including works by the usual names familiar from the network of state-supported museums, private foundations and international galleries, including Cy Twombly, Martin Creed and Lawrence Wiener.

Seventy-six-year-old Nitsch is considered a serious artist, with works in many museum collections worldwide, including the Tate Gallery, MoMA and Centre Pompidou, and who has exhibited frequently over a 50-year career. He came to prominence as part of the Viennese Actionist School that emerged in the 1960s, which is characterised by performances involving violence and humiliation. He is most notorious for his theatrical presentations which combine live action, nudity, bloodletting, blood drinking and degradation as spectacle…”

Read the full article on SPIKED, 13 February 2015 here:

http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/hermann-nitsch-blood-on-the-museum-floor/16692#.Vd-OA_ldU5k

Museum Policy: Pre-emptive censorship

“In a recent article about the controversial artist Allen Jones in the Spectator, the following disclosure was made: ‘Revealingly, a recent Jones retrospective organised by a German museum was turned down by the woman director of one of the main public galleries in London with the words “we don’t want any trouble”.’

“It seems even the prospect of criticism is enough to ward off directors of public venues from displaying politically difficult art.

“This is not the first time. In 2006, Iwona Blazwick, the director of the Whitechapel Gallery in London, was accused of pre-emptively censoring an exhibition of Hans Bellmer’s sexually explicit art. Some works ‘deemed potentially offensive’ to the local Muslim population were withdrawn before the exhibition opened. No complaint from a member of the public had been received by the venue before the decision was made…”

Read the full article on SPIKED, 11 November 2014 here:

http://www.spiked-online.com/freespeechnow/fsn_article/curators-need-to-stand-up-to-offence-takers#.Vd-JpPldU5k

Museum Policy: Deaccessioning by British museums

“In 10 July, an ancient Egyptian statue was sold in London by Christie’s for £15,762,500. The Sekhemka limestone figure, dating from 2400-2300BC, was consigned by Northampton Borough Council (NBC). It had previously been stored at Northampton Museum since its donation before 1880 by the Marquess of Northampton. Unfortunately for Sekhemka, the museum is primarily a museum of local history, focusing on the shoe trade, with a subsidiary collection of fine-art paintings. There is no antiquities department, which meant the sculpture was in storage most of the time. So when NBC were in search of funds for building work at the museum, the statue looked a prime candidate for sale (called ‘deaccessioning’ in the museum world). The piece was rarely on display, lacked a specialist curator to protect it, and Northampton museum was riven by internal personnel conflict. Most important of all, Sekhemka was valuable. Despite warnings from theMuseums Association, the Egyptian government and local Northampton figures, NBC consigned and sold the figure last week.

Bury Council sold paintings by Lowry to fund deficits in 2006 and Southampton Council wanted to do something similar to pay for a Titanic museum. The fact that the Sekhemka auction made three times its estimated price of £4-6million has serious ramifications. This will only encourage cash-strapped councils all over the UK to eye their collections with a view to disposing of ‘non-core’ items in order to pay for maintenance, restoration and expansion of buildings – or simply to reduce budget deficits…”

Read the full article on SPIKED, 15 July 2014 here:

http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/the-museums-turning-culture-into-a-commodity/15399#.Vd-EefldU5k

Children in Museums

“The publication of a photograph of a boy climbing a valuable steel sculpture, while his parents look on unconcerned, has prompted debate about children in public museums. This debate has been going on for years within the art community. On one side, there are traditionalists (conservators, artists and avid gallery-goers) who object to the noise and disruption caused by children and worry about damage to fragile objects. Opposing them are progressives: education officers, teachers and parents, who argue that art enhances the lives of children and that traditionalists should stop being restrictive and join the modern world. In a newspaper discussion, writer and broadcaster Dea Birkett calls opponents of this progressive outlook ‘slow head nodders and chin scratchers’…”

Read the full article on SPIKED, 24 February 2014 here:

http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/museums-never-mind-the-children-what-about-the-parents/14702#.Vd999PldU5k