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.
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.
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
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