Art theft and looting during World War II
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Art theft and looting occurred on massive scale during World War II. It originated with the policies of the Axis countries, primarily Nazi Germany and Japan, which systematically looted occupied territories. Near the end of the war the Soviet Union, in turn, began looting reclaimed and occupied territories.
Although the looting of "cultural heritage" of the German people and private collectors was not permitted in the agreement of Yalta 1945, following the defeat of Germany by the allied forces the following goods disappeared: 3 truck loads of precious art, which was listed in a confiscated list by the US-forces (in the mine Merker in Thuringia); 1 trainload of 20 wagons loaded with artwork and jewels from Hungary (named the "gold train"). According to an article in "Der Spiegel" from 2001 the artwork is suspected in the US and has never been officially declared. The lost artworks from the "Grube Merker," about 450 pictures, are not found in any museum and thought to have been sold privately.
An attempt by the US to confiscate more German precious art by requesting 202 precious pictures to be taken was prevented by Walter Farmer on 6 Nov 1945, an art protection officer in Wiesbaden leading the central art collection store. Although against his direct orders from the USA, he assembled 24 colleagues from Germany and Austria and successfully prevented the removal of the pictures (named as operation "Westward Ho").
In the book "Art as Politics in the Third Reich" by Jonathan Petropoulus he outlines how there is a need for further cooperation by smaller art gallerys to recover art that they may be holding and not know it belongs to. In his book he says that there are still many tens of thousands of pieces of art missing today, but there is still more research to be done to get a more accurate number.
Countless pieces of art were stolen during the Holocaust and many were destroyed. The Nazis were relentless in their efforts to get rid of the Jewish people and their culture. Paintings that had been passed down from generation to generation were taken and destroyed. This was extremely emotionally hard for many Jewish families because it was not only an attack on their families and culture, but also on their history. There has barely been any efforts of restitution. Many of the families who lost art are simply now left with claims. One of the primary problems encountered by individuals pursuing claims is that it is difficult to locate the necessary documentation on provenance. Organizations with information on a piece's history, museums in particular, often have a disincentive to share information that could assist in an heir's claim.
For organized looting, see:
- art theft and looting by Nazi Germany
- art theft and looting by Japan
- art theft and looting by the Soviet Union
On a smaller scale, art was stolen by individuals from various countries, taking opportunity of the chaotic war conditions. For example, see:
- List of libraries damaged during World War II
- List of missing treasure
- The Rape of Europa
- The Monuments Men 2014 comedy-drama on the theft and recovery of looted art.
- Petropoulos, Jonathan (1996). Art as Politics in the Third Reich. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press.
- Willi, Korte (September 1, 2006). "Nazi Looted Art: The Case of the Missing Perspective". First Person Singular: 59.
- Foulkes, Lucia (2015). "The art of atonement: how mandated transparency can help return masterpieces lost during World War II". Boston College International and Comparative Law Review. 38 (2) – via Research Library.