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Aftershocks of Nazi plundering

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On June 23, 1940, the day after France signed an armistice with Nazi Germany, Adolf Hitler travelled to Paris to see the sites of the conquered city accompanied by sculptor Arno Breker and architect Albert Speer, who later was appointed the Nazi Minister of Armaments and War Production.

Hitler had never been to Paris. "It was the dream of my life to see Paris," he told Speer at the end of the tour. "I cannot say how happy I am to have that dream fulfilled today."

As the occupation bureaucracy was put in place, Hitler ensured France's numerous art treasures were catalogued and stored for "protection." Specifically targeted were Jewish gallery owners and collectors, who were told their property was being "safeguarded." (Leonard da Vinci's masterpiece Mona Lisa was removed from the Louvre by the astute museum staff and hidden before the Nazis could seize it.)

Paintings or sculptures the Nazis deemed "degenerate" were destroyed or sold; other more historic pieces were stored in vaults or sent to Linz, Austria, (Hitler's childhood home) for exhibits in the mammoth Fºhrermuseum he was having built. Eventually about 8,000 works of art went there, though the museum was never completed.

This was only a fraction of the five or six million pieces of art the Nazis methodically looted across Europe from 1933-45. It is possible, though not likely, some of these paintings might be hanging in the Winnipeg Art Gallery, the officials of which researching the provenance of about a dozen paintings in conjunction with an investigation in several Canadian galleries.

Since 1945, only three pieces of art held by a Canadian gallery or museum have been identified as coming from Nazi plundering. In 2004, the National Gallery of Canada established a painting acquired in 1956, Le Salon de Madame Aron by early 20th century French artist âdouard Vuillard, had been owned by Jewish Parisian businessman Alfred Lindon. It had been hidden by Lindon before he escaped to the U.S. in 1940, but had been discovered and seized. After the war, the painting resurfaced and found its way to a Paris gallery. The National Gallery returned the painting and it was auctioned in New York.

The search for Nazi plunder started before the war's end. In 1943, U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt launched the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Program. Some 400 art historians and museum experts were recruited to retrieve this priceless booty. The Monuments Men (and women) are the subject of George Clooney's latest film, based on Robert Edsel's 2009 book.

While the movie, which traces the experiences of seven of the Monuments Men, has garnered mediocre reviews, the real story is fascinating. Many landed in Sicily in 1943 following the Allied invasion and ultimately arrived in Paris after D-Day. It was in France where they were most successful, locating thousands of paintings. Prior to V-E Day in May 1945, they had to work quickly because two months earlier Hitler had issued the Demolitions on Reich Territory Decree that stipulated everything should be destroyed if the Allies invaded Germany.

One accurate scene in the movie is a visit by two Monuments Men to a German dentist to cure a toothache one of them had. They learned the dentist's son was an art expert who collaborated with the Nazis. This led them to a large cache of art, some of which was part of Hermann Goering's vast plundered collection, and the German location of other paintings, sculptures, tapestries and antique furniture.

One of the courageous heroines of this war story was Rose Valland -- called Claire Simone and played by Cate Blanchett in the movie -- a curator at the Jeu de Paume Museum in Paris. The Nazis used the museum as a storage facility for the art, a lot of it from the Rothschild family's collection. Valland secretly kept a record of the art and where it was sent in Germany. "When you're the weakest," she said years later, "you have to be the cleverest."

As Lynn Nicholas, the author of The Rape of Europa, notes, Valland helped the Monuments Men retrieve about 60,000 works of French art. She was awarded the French Legion of Honour and the Medal of the Resistance, prior to her death in 1980.

As Nicholas also relates, one of the German art dealers questioned by the Monuments Men was Hildebrand Gurlitt, a dealer in Munich found with many confiscated works. He had a lot more, a fact that only recently came to light. In November, German authorities revealed that in 2012 as part of a tax evasion investigation, they discovered in the Munich apartment of Hildebrand's son, some 1,400 works of art, many from Jewish galleries and collectors during the war. Among the stash were paintings by Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse.

Then, just last week, it was reported that Gurlitt had even more art hidden in other locations. The outcry over the Germans' procrastination at revealing all of this prompted that government to establish an independent research centre to search for remaining looted art in German museums and collections.

Thanks to Valland and the Monuments Men, almost all of whom have passed away, thousands of works seized were returned to their owners. Many pieces probably are lost forever, as the full extent of the systematic Nazi plundering still reverberates 70 years later.


Now & Then is a column in which historian Allan Levine puts the events of today in a historical context.


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 15, 2014 A17

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