No one knows precisely how many works of art Nazis stole from Jews between 1933 and 1945, though some estimates reach 700,000. The systematic looting demonstrated that the Nazis weren’t just mass murderers, they were unmatched robbers as well.
Though some of the works ended up in the hands of German art dealers, many also went into the private collections of Nazi officials. Those included Hermann Goering, an avid art collector who stole art from many of Europe’s great museums.
A reminder of the Nazis’ greed surfaced recently in a squalid Munich apartment. There, 1,406 works of art whose preliminary value was estimated at more than $1.3 billon were found. Many of the works were little known, but the treasure included works by Picasso, Chagall, Matisse, Toulousse-Lautrec, Albrecht Durer and other masters. Not for nothing did the Wall Street Journal call the works “one of the most significant collections of pre-war European art in the world.”
The works, most of which were believed to have been stolen from Jews, were collected by Hildebrand Gurlitt, a well-known German art collector who died in 1956. During the Nazi era, he was put to work by Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister, purifying museums in Nazi territory of “degenerate art.” Much of it ended up in his collection. The collection was discovered two years ago when German authorities, investigating Mr. Gurlitt’s son, Cornelius Gurlitt, for tax evasion, raided the apartment.
The younger Mr. Gurlitt, who at 76 is in poor health, also owns a house in Salzburg, which apparently has not been searched. Given that some artworks stolen by the Nazis have been recovered from Austrian salt mines, a search of the house would seem in order.
Of course, Germany must go to great lengths to ensure that the works, which are said to be in “very good condition” despite the lack of attention, are returned to their rightful owners.
The return of stolen art became an international cause in 1998, when representatives of 44 nations gathered in Washington, D.C., to pursue a “just solution.” Joel Levi, an Israeli attorney who is an expert in the restitution of art stolen from Jews during the Third Reich, is confident that the art found in Munich will be returned to its former owners, if they can be found. In an interview with Haaretz, he said, “We have light, which could herald the fact that something new is beginning, something is starting to move for families whose father lost everything he owned before ... being expelled to Auschwitz. I don’t see a situation where even a single one of the 1,400 pictures will remain in German hands.”
Except for Jewish victims who also were German, that outcome would be desirable.