Nazi Looted Art

In my last blog I talked about the Aryanization of Jewish property, and one thing that the Nazi’s really wanted from the wealthy Jews was their art.  Many wealthy Jewish families had incredible art collections, they were patrons to the artist and they were dealers of art. Many of them commissioned works of art from some of the top artist of their day, such as Gustav Klimt and Pablo Picasso.  And many were musicians with valuable instruments like Stradivarius cellos and violins, themselves beautiful works of art.

It is well known that Adolf Hitler painted and that he wanted to be an artist.  He preferred to paint architectural scenes without people and avoided the use of bright colors, as they may “stir emotion”.  In the early 1910’s Hitler applied to the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts, however he didn’t pass the drawing test.  He blamed his failure on Jewish instructors and deans of the college (however most were not Jewish).  While Hitler was still in Vienna, a Jewish frame store owner, Samuel Morgenstern purchased several of Hitler’s paintings and even convinced some of his friends to buy Hitler’s paintings as well.  Years later, after the Anschluss of Austria Morgenstern and his wife were deported to the Lodz ghetto.  Morgenstern died in August of 1943 in the ghetto, it is thought that his wife died later in Auschwitz.  Before his death, Morgenstern wrote to Hitler to plead for his life and that of his family, he never got a reply.

Herman Goering and Adolph Hitler “shopping”.


When it came to art, it wasn’t just the Jews who were victimized, museums, artists and churches were often victims as well.  Artists like Klimt, Picasso, Otto Dix and many others had their work deemed “degenerate” by the Nazi’s.  On July 19, 1937 in Munich, Germany the Nazi’s opened the Degenerate Art Exhibition.  The exhibition was to show how through the use of bright colors, geometric design and imagination the artist was a “degenerate”.  Throughout the exhibition hung slogans from the Nazi party such as: “Revelation of a Jewish Soul”, “An Insult to German Womanhood” and “Nature as seen by sick minds”.  Impressionism, Cubism and Surrealism were all art movements labeled “degenerate” by the Nazi party.

At the same time as the Degenerate Art Exhibition, Hitler himself was overseeing a counter art show at the House of German Art.  This was a show of “approved” art.  Hitler opened the show with speech what included the following: “If they do see fields of blue, they are degenerate, and should go to an asylum.  If they only pretend to see them blue, they are criminals, and should go to prison.  I will purge the nation of them, and let no one take part in their corruption.  The day of punishment will come”.  For artist within the Reich or close to it, it came quickly.

Some of the artists:

Max Beckman was dismissed from his teaching post and called a “cultural Bolshevik”.

Otto Dix was also dismissed from his teaching post, even though he publicly declared his support of Hitler and the Nazi party.

Paul Klee was automatically dismissed from teaching due to his Jewish heritage, and labeled a degenerate.  He fled to Switzerland where he suffered financially due to the loss of his clients.

Ernst Ludwig Kirschner was already living in Switzerland when the Aryanization began.  However, he suffered from a deep-seated fear that the Nazis would come for him, along with hallucinations.  He destroyed all of his wood blocks, sculptures and personal documents, then committed suicide in 1938.

Pablo Picasso was barred from showing his work during the Nazi occupation of France.  He stayed in France and was continually harassed by the Gestapo and Nazi secret police.  When they found a photograph of his Guernica painting, depicting the attack on a Spanish village by German and Italian forces under the direction of Francisco Franco, the Gestapo officer asked “did you do this?”, Picasso’s reply was “no you did”.

Stolen works of art ended up all over Germany.  The “approved” works of art were to be housed in the yet to be built Fuhrermuseum in Hitler’s home town of Linz, Austria.  With each country the Nazi’s conquered museums, art dealers and private collections were taken.

The Adoration of the Lamb, commonly known as the Ghent Altarpiece.
The Bruges Madonna.

Some of the Players and the Art

A major player in all of this was Hildebrand Gurlitt.  Even though Gurlitt was classified as one quarter Jewish, he was allowed membership into the Reich Chamber of Fine Arts.  Membership was a must if you were an art dealer in the Reich and it was forbidden for Jews to hold membership.  This was another way for the Nazi party to take over Jewish art collections.  However, for Hildebrand Gurlitt, whose personal taste in art ran contrary to that of his Nazi employers, it allowed him to build his own personal collection.  Gurlitt’s collection came to light in 2012 in the home of his son, Cornelius.  There were 121 framed works of art and 1,285 unframed works of art by artists such as: Marc Chagall, Otto Dix, Max Lieberman, Henri Matisse, Munch, Kirchner, Klee and Picasso.  All of them worth millions of dollars today.

Gurlitt wasn’t the only one, Herman Goering often made special “shopping” trips to Paris, after the Nazi’s began occupying it, to pick out art for Hitler and his own personal collection to be hung at his Carinhall Estate.  Goering even had his own curator, Walter Andreas Hofer.  Hofer began his work with Goering in 1937, he assisted Goering on his “shopping” trips to the Louvre and Jeu de Paume museums in France.  Adolph Eichmann, the architect of the Holocaust, was another “collector” who had many stolen pieces of art in his home.  Even museum curators in Austria became thieves, most notably was Bruno Grimshitz.  Grimshitz who flaunted his Nazi party membership, even when it was illegal, became the head of the Austrian Gallery after his former boss had been let go for being to close to “degenerate” artist, along with his wife’s Jewish heritage.  Grimshitz followed the Nazi raids into Jewish homes and in the case of the home of Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer stole Ferdinand’s collection by the artist Gustav Klimt, including the famous portrait of Ferdinand’s wife: Adele Bloch-Bauer, commonly known as The Lady in Gold.

Neuschwanstein Castle, high in the hills of Bavaria, was used to store much of the looted art destined for the Fuhrermuseum.  Over 100,000 pieces of art was taken from France alone.  In the dead of night as allied forces advanced, they stole the Bruges Madonna by Michelangelo from the Church of Our Lady in Bruges, Belgium.  One of the very few Michelangelo sculptures outside of Italy.  The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, commonly known as The Ghent Altarpiece by Jan and Hubert Van Eyck, was stolen from St. Bavo Cathedral in Ghent, Belgium.  The altarpiece is a polyptych piece consisting of 12 panels, one of which had been stolen in 1934 and never recovered.  It has been stolen thirteen times in its six-hundred-year existence, and it was almost lost at the end of WWII, when an ardent Nazi was set on destroying the place it was hidden.

So, what happened to it all?  Was it returned to the original owners?  Was it destroyed? Who saved it?  We will talk more about that in my next blog, I hope you will join me as we continue to delve further into Nazi looted art.

3 thoughts on “Nazi Looted Art”

  1. I had no idea Hitler wanted to be an artist. Very interesting. If only he had done better on his “test” to get into art school, the world may have been so very different.


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