Mysteries and Justice: Nazi Art Plunder

Sonia Ivancic ’25 in Arts | October 27, 2023

        This past month, an emotional but optimistic ceremony took place in the briefing room of the District Attorney of Manhattan that showcased the paintings of Austrian expressionist Egon Schiele. Why was this ceremony held in a New York Courthouse? To answer this question, we need to dive into the years of the Second World War and the complex and extensive network of art looting carried out by the Nazis. 

        Hitler was a self-proclaimed artist, and after he was rejected from art school and turned his mind towards politics, he decided that Germany should become a country with distinguished, refined art. His definition of refined art excluded any kinds of modern or expressionist styles, as well as art made by pacifists or Jewish, Black, and Slavic people. He was extremely conservative in this sense and admired more classical styles, especially realist paintings of German landscapes or old German traditional painters. Any abstract art or paintings created by the aforementioned groups of people were deemed “degenerate art.” During the well-known Nazi book burnings in the 1930s, degenerate art was burned en masse. Even jazz sheet music, mostly written by Black composers, was added to the flames. 

        The Weimar Republic controlled Germany from 1918 to 1933 between the two World Wars. This government’s increased freedoms and international outlook led to a thriving cultural movement, including an outpouring of modern and expressive art. Hitler placed Joseph Goebbels, the Chief Propaganda Officer, in charge of ridding the country of Weimar-era art. By 1937, the Nazis had plundered almost 16,000 pieces of art from German galleries and museums. In the same year, they used some of this art to create a “Degenerate Art Exhibition” in Munich, randomly scattering the artworks to ridicule their art styles. This exhibit became the most popular art exhibition in Europe, attracting 2-3 million people in the span of five months. Once the exhibit was over, the Nazis passed a law allowing looted art to be sold and organized an international art auction of these pieces in Switzerland. Initially, many art dealers in attendance were wary of buying the paintings because they believed they would be funding Nazi war efforts. The party promised the money would only go to German museums, but in reality, a third of these funds were used for the war and weapons production. 5,000 paintings that could not be sold were burned. 

        Hitler had plans to make a grand museum in his hometown of Linz, Austria, called the Führermuseum, so that his nation could have a large and grandiose art museum just like Germany’s European neighbors (such as France’s Louvre). Thus, Hitler started collecting thousands of “refined” art pieces for this museum he had in mind. Other top-ranking Nazis in Hitler’s inner circle decided that they, too, should start amassing huge private art collections. Most prominent was Hermann Göring, who had a private collection of 2,000 pieces, 50 percent of which may have been confiscated. Private collections created a huge system of art plundering in the Nazi Party, where officials were responsible for locating, purchasing, and buying art, mainly from large museums, collections, or famous collectors. Later in the war, however, the Party launched a program where soldiers would ransack the homes of families who were sent to concentration camps and make detailed inventories of every object, auctioning them off to German families. 

        As Nazi soldiers swept through Europe, they specifically targeted Jewish artists and art collectors, looting their homes and galleries. Since most Jewish people had been forced to death camps, Germany legally considered them “stateless” people who had “fled,” giving them no rights to their property and legalizing the plundering of their homes. All of this pillaged art was shipped back to Germany, where the Nazis faced the problem of storage. They needed cavernous rooms that were safe from Allied bombings and had temperatures and humidity conditions capable of sustaining the condition of artworks. Salt mines and churches became the perfect solution. Hitler’s collection, intended for his Führermuseum, was found in the extensive salt mines under the town of Altaussee, near Hitler’s hometown. 

        The recovery of these stolen art pieces happened in two main ways. First, most of the paintings were found by Allied soldiers immediately following the end of World War II. An Allied team called the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Program, better knowns as the “Monuments Men,” was a select group of historians, architects, curators, and scholars who traveled Europe to identify and protect important cultural sites in the aftermath of war but found hundreds of pieces plundered by the Nazis, such as Michelangelo’s Madonna. The second way looted art has begun to return to its original owners is through international cooperation. In 1985, nations published lists of paintings stolen from Jewish people by the Nazis. By 1998, 39 countries signed a pledge to compensate those who had lost art in the war, and art pieces began returning to their legal owners, mainly Jewish people. In 1998, the US hosted a conference that catalyzed research into and publication of information about looted art and a worldwide database of lost artwork. Guidelines set up by the Association of Art Museum Directors have led many museums to look into the sourcing of their paintings, and many museums, such as The National Gallery of Art, have identified hundreds of paintings that may have come directly from Nazi pillaging. 

        So, how does all this history relate to the NYC courtroom ceremony? The paintings by Egon Schiele in question were the property of Fritz Grünbaum, an AustrianJewish cabaret artist who was killed in Dachau, a concentration camp in Germany, during the war. Grünbaum was taken from his home in 1938 after he publicly displayed anti-Nazi acts, and his wife was forced to give their art collection to the Nazis, who would house them in a warehouse. All of Schiele’s pieces, with distinct modern art qualities, were regarded as degenerate and sold intentionally to enrich the Party. Grünbaum’s descendants have continuously tried to regain possession of the Schieles over the last 25 years. In the 1990s, seven Schieles passed from Austrian museums to American collectors and museums, like the Museum of Modern Art, MOMA, in New York City, through a Manhattan dealer, thereby giving the city of Manhattan jurisdiction over this property dispute. In 2018, a court ruled that Grünbaum had never sold or surrendered his art and that his heirs were the rightful owners. Finally, these museums agreed to return the Schieles to Grünbaum’s family after this ruling, and the ceremony in the court briefing room was even more special in the middle of a Jewish holy time of year. 

        It is important to note that the Nazis were not the only perpetrators of art plundering during WWII; both the Soviets and Americans engaged in this crime on smaller scales. Cases like the Schiele’s have been frequent in the past few decades as descendants of people who the Nazis looted have confronted museums that house their lawful art. At long last, justice is on the horizon for the thousands of people who were killed, stolen from, and exploited by the Nazi party and global art galleries.