Holocaust-Era Assets

Conducting Research at the National Archives into Art Looting, Recovery, and Restitution

Presented by Ernest "Tyger" Latham


In times of war it is extremely common for a victorious power to transfer artistic and cultural property from the vanquished. The fact that this occurred during World War II should come as no surprise to anyone. But, as Lynn Nicholas and others have pointed out, the pillaging of art by the Nazis was distinct in several ways. Firstly, never in the history of war have cultural, artistic, and religious objects been moved on such a scale. Secondly, the Nazis went to unprecedented ideological, legal, and political lengths to justify the removal of these objects. Finally, its worth noting, that World War II was the first war in which belligerent armies had within their ranks trained squads of art specialists.

In the case of Germany, there were three major bureaucracies that were financed by the Nazis to deal exclusively with matters of art. Hitler's special art commission, the Sonderauftrag Linz, was established to build up a collection for an art museum Hitler intended to build in his hometown of Linz. Hermann Goering also took a keen interest in art and amassed a private collection of thousands of works during the war. Alfred Rosenberg, one of the Nazi's main ideologues, established the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg, known as the ERR, which initially limited itself to collecting Judaica for a planned anti-Semitic think-tank but later expanded its activities to include works of art.

Those of you who are interested in learning more about the Nazi's attempts to acquire art during the war should read Lynn Nicholas' The Rape of Europa and Hector Feliciano's The Lost Museum. Moreover, because Nicholas and Feliciano relied on records at the National Archives you may benefit from reviewing their footnotes for clues for your own research.

Those who have done research on the subject of looted art at the National Archives know that there is a wealth of information available. I personally have only looked at a fraction of this material. Fortunately, Greg Bradsher has compiled on extensive finding aid to assist researchers working on topics pertaining to Holocaust-era assets. This finding aid, originally published in May of 1997 to accompany the preliminary Eizenstat report, details over 15 million pages of documents and includes records from 30 different US federal agencies. The finding aid has continued to be expanded since it was first published and now exceeds over 1200 pages.

The National Archives introduced an on-line version of Dr. Bradsher's finding aid that can be accessed either through the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum's homepage or the State Department's. The on-line version has been designed to enable researchers to do key word searches. I recently used the key word "looted art," and the computer indicated that there were 19 different record groups which contain at least one reference to the subject. Of course, a more precise key word - for example, the name of a particular art gallery, artist, or collection - would allow you to narrow your search even further. This on-line version of Dr. Bradsher's finding aid has saved the US team of the ICE (Independent Commission of Experts) countless hours of sifting through boxes of irrelevant material and has also provided us in some cases with references to record groups we might have overlooked had we relied on more conventional archival research methods.

I would now like to highlight the most relevant record groups. Although there is a great deal of overlap between some of these records, I have decided, for those of you taking notes, to cover the three categories -- looted art, recovery, and restitution -- separately:

Art Looting

You will probably want to start with record group 239 for the broad topic of Nazi looted art. This record group contains the records of the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historical Monuments in War Areas, known in short as the Roberts Commission, named after its chairman Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Owen Roberts. This commission, included the most preeminent art scholars in the United States at the time, and worked closely with the War Department's Monument, Fine Arts and Archives branch, known by the acronym MFAA. The MFAA was responsible for carrying out the Commission's work in American occupation areas of Europe. Both the Roberts Commission and the MFAA's papers are in record group 239.

This record group also includes the papers of the Art Looting Investigation Unit of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). This OSS unit, established toward the end of 1944, collected and disseminated information on the Axis powers' attempts to confiscate and transfer cultural property. The Art Looting Investigation Unit was especially interested in obtaining information about individuals and organizations involved in such operations and transactions. The unit maintained an active liaison with the Roberts Commission throughout the war and thus also had contact with the MFAA.

There are several entries within record group 239 worth itemizing in more detail. Entry 73 contains the subject files of the OSS's Art Investigation Unit and includes reports, correspondence, photographs, intercepts and copies of captured German documents relating to cultural property in Europe. These documents cover public and private art collections, as well as the activities of the German office of art protection and various art dealers. These subject files also include detailed interrogation reports of prominent agents employed by Hitler, Goering, and Rosenberg to acquire artworks in Axis-occupied countries. I've read several of these interrogation reports, and consider them a valuable resource for anyone wishing to learn more about the various methods the Nazis used to acquire artistic and cultural property.

Similarly, Entry 10 of record group 239 contains the general records of the Roberts Commission. The six boxes that make up this entry include reports, memoranda, and copies of correspondence. The records cover a wide variety of topics and are arranged alphabetically by subject. Looking through these boxes I came across reports on such topics as preparations for Hitler's Linz Museum, individual German personnel connected with looted art, works of art stolen in France, and looting of Dutch museums.

For those of you wishing to examine a particular country's involvement in looted art, you may find record group 84 - the records of the foreign service posts of the United States - very useful. Like all diplomatic records, documents in this record group are assigned decimal numbers which correspond to particular subjects. During the war all material dealing with art, including looted art, was given the decimal number 840.3. In the case of Switzerland, the country with which I am most familiar, I have found several reports that deal exclusively with Switzerland's connection to the looted art traffic.

For example, a few months ago while going through this record group, I came across a 26-page MFAA report concerning looted works of art in Switzerland. My initial excitement in having found this document was greatly diminished, however, after reading Hector Feliciano's book and discovering that not only had he found a copy of this same document -- albeit in a different record group -- but it had also been the basis for his chapter on Switzerland. Nevertheless, it's a very important document because it details the extent to which art dealers in Switzerland were actively participating in the buying and selling of looted art. In preparing the report, Douglas Cooper, a British officer and member of MFAA, interrogated Walter Hofer who was Goering's personal art adviser during the war. Hofer, who was involved in nearly every Goering purchase, provided Cooper with details about several paintings that had been looted from French private collections and transferred to Switzerland to be exchanged for other paintings more agreeable to Goering's taste. One of the first exchanges involved the Fischer Gallery in Lucerne. The report explains that in February and March of 1941 Hofer went to Lucerne and picked out several works from Fischer's collection. At first, Goering had agreed to pay for the works in Swiss francs, but given the difficulty in obtaining Swiss currency, he asked if he could make an exchange instead. Fischer, according to the report, agreed and in July traveled to Berlin where he was reimbursed with 25 paintings that had been looted from the Jeu de Paume and were at the time being kept in the ERR warehouse in Neuschwanstein. With the Goering's approval, Fischer had no problem obtaining an export permit, and on October 22, 1941, he left Germany and entered Switzerland with the 25 paintings. Fischer sold 9 of the paintings immediately, including a Degas, a Manet, and a Sisley to the Swiss industrialist Emil Buehrle.

Art Recovery

For those of you wishing to research the recovery of looted art, I would strongly recommend Michael Kurtz's book Nazi Contraband: American Policy on European Cultural Treasures. Kurtz, and others who have written on the Allies attempts to recover art at the end of the war, explain that as the Allied armies closed in on Germany from the east and west, art that had been looted by the Nazis was moved to bunkers, castles, churches, and salt mines throughout Germany. The most famous storage facility was Alt Aussee, the salt mine near Salzburg, where Hitler's personal collection was taken. But there were many other repositories that were just as important, such as the Kaiseroda mines, known as Merkers, which held not only thousands of paintings from German museums, but also much of the Reichsbank gold.

MFAA field agents in Europe under the direction of the Roberts Commission were instrumental in recovering art looted by the Nazis. Again, entry 62 of record group 239 provides a general overview of MFAA's work during and immediately following the war. The reports are arranged numerically and consist of field reports prepared by MFAA officers serving in Europe. The reports relate primarily to war damage to cultural and historical monuments and to measures taken for their immediate protection and eventual restoration.

Art Restitution

For United States' efforts to restitute art after the war I would encourage you to consult Michael Kurtz's book. The National Archives' records of special interest are record group 260, the records of the U.S. Operation Headquarters. Within this record group is the Ardellia Hall collection, named after one of the Fine Arts officers. The Ardellia Hall collection contains the records for the United States central collecting points for works of art and cultural property.

After securing and sorting out the millions of pieces of art that had been looted during the war, the United States and Britain began the process of restituting them. Given the volume of art, this was a major undertaking and required the creation of several collecting points, whose holdings contained some of Europe's greatest masterpieces.

By 1946, however, the number of such collecting points in the American zone had been reduced to four: Munich, Wiesbaden, Marburg, and Offenbach. After June 15, 1946, when the Marbung collecting point was closed, the remaining central collecting points became specialized. The Wiesbaden Central Collecting Point held mostly German-owned material. The Munich Central Collecting Point specialized in materials subject to restitution. The third specialized central collecting points, the Offenbach Archival Depot, was devoted primarily to Jewish materials, books, and archives.

Concluding Remarks

In conclusion I would say that there is a tremendous amount of material in the National Archives relating to looted art, its recovery, and its restitution. For those of you in the audience who wish to conduct research on the involvement of the Allies in recovering and restituting art after the war, you have come to the right place. Those of you, however, who wish to research works of art that may have entered neutral countries, such as Switzerland, are likely to encounter many obstacles. Half a century later we still don't know how much looted art reached Switzerland. According to reports written in 1945, little definitive proof of art being smuggled into Switzerland could be found except a few cases in which art had been brought into the country by diplomatic pouch. U.S. intelligence assumed that Swiss traffic in looted art had reached large proportions and that the looted art objects were sitting in bank vaults, foreign depositories, and private hands. The search for looted art in neutral countries is further complicated by the fact that much was done to obscure its origin. Art was often not held in the name of the German looter but in the name of a Swiss middle man. The problem with these intelligence reports is their information is difficult to verify. These reports prepared mostly by British and U.S. intelligence services seldom offer conclusive proof and sources are seldom revealed. I don't mean to suggest that these reports are false or should be dismissed but it is clear that further research into private archives will be needed to complete the picture. Perhaps my fellow panel member, Willi Korte, has some suggestions of where one may be able to trace this type of information.

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