For Students

Nazi-Era Provenance Research

Nazi-era Looting and Recovery


Pablo Picasso
The Bullfight,
1934
Oil on canvas
UMMA, Gift of The Carey Walker Foundation, 1994/1.70

In June of last year, Gustav Klimt’s shimmering gold portrait of Viennese society hostess Adele Bloch-Bauer painted in 1907 sold for a reported $135 million, a record for a work of art at the time. But the sale of this masterpiece—to Ronald Lauder’s Neue Galerie, a museum dedicated to German and Austrian Expressionist art—was notable for another reason: it brought to a close a painful chapter in the painting’s history. Five months earlier, the so-called “Mona Lisa of Austria” was finally returned—along with four other works by Klimt—to its rightful heirs after a protracted legal battle with the Austrian government, which had held the paintings since they were looted by the Nazis in 1938.

Enthralled with art as a sweeping metaphor for racial purity, Nazi leadership used art as a vigorous propaganda tool from the party’s early history through its dominance in Germany from 1933 to 1945. In the view of the Nazis, most modern art was “corrupt” and “degenerate,” leading them to attack the artists, dealers, and museum directors who created and promoted it. Germany’s museums were cleansed of such works, with many sold at fractions of their market value. In 1937 the Nazis organized the infamous Degenerate Art exhibition as a catalog of and warning against decadence—even as they perhaps unintentionally brought attention to it. Throughout their rule of terror, the Nazis systematically confiscated tens (possibly hundreds) of thousands of works of art from individuals and collections across Europe—both “degenerate” objects and those sanctioned artworks such as Old Master paintings that they earmarked for future Nazi museums or for the personal collections of party leaders.

As Lynn Nicholas concludes in The Rape of Europa (1994), her seminal book detailing the scope and trajectory of Nazi art looting during World War II, “Never had works of art been so important to a political movement and never had they been moved about on such a vast scale, pawns in the cynical and desperate games of ideology, greed, and survival.”

In the recent documentary film inspired by The Rape of Europa, historian Jonathan Petropoulos observes, “The Nazis were not just the most systematic mass murderers in history, they were the greatest thieves.”

In addition to their exploration of this history of looting, both the book and the film focus on the broad Allied efforts to save and restitute art stolen by the Nazis—a rare instance of the spoils of war not going to the victors. Those charged with protecting, recovering, and cataloging thousands of confiscated objects in the European theater became known as the “Monuments Men,” many of whom went on to become leaders in the art and museum fields, including Charles Sawyer, UMMA Director from 1957 to 1972. These committed art historians and curators advised military units during the war in the hope of sparing historic monuments from the ravages of war and helped salvage enormous caches of priceless art afterwards. However, thousands of works remained orphaned and at-large.

In order to identify any Nazi-tainted objects that may have found their way into its own collections, UMMA in 2004 initiated its Nazi-era provenance project. Although research is conducted on a case-by-case scenario, it usually begins with how UMMA acquired the work, contacting dealers or donors and their heirs, sourcing major monographs or catalogue raisonnés, consulting archives and other collections, and identifying scholars who are specialists in the field.

“Provenance research is like a treasure hunt,” said UMMA’s Bay Warren. “It’s especially rewarding when I’ve been able to definitively clear an object of suspicion. The provenance research network is quite small, but there is a real willingness to share information and contacts, and just brainstorm; we’re all after the same objective.”

Among Warren’s detective tales was trailing Jean-Baptiste Perroneau’s eighteenth-century painting The Engraver, Laurent Cars from David David-Weill’s collection—a red flag since much of it was seized by the Nazis in 1940—to a 1959 auction sold anonymously, and then back again to a 1937 Wildenstein gallery sale in London, where it was found to be among the works David-Weill shipped to London and had placed on consignment. The gallery returned the work to him after 1945. Another trail concerned Picasso’s The Bullfight (1934). An old label on the back of the canvas indicated it had been in Paul Rosenberg’s gallery in New York—Rosenberg’s gallery in Paris was “Aryanized.” Warren was able to locate Rosenberg’s daughter-in-law, who remembered the painting and the UMMA donor, Herschel Carey Walker, and believed it had been part of Paul Rosenberg’s personal collection for many years.

On October 25 UMMA Director James Steward will present the project’s findings in a program that will also include a conversation with Lynn Nicholas as this year’s Doris Sloan Memorial Lecture and a screening of the documentary The Rape of Europa.

Stephanie Rieke
Associate Editor