Skip to Main Content

Europe's Art During World War II: Looting, Loss, Destruction & Restitution

Europe's Art During World War II

Link to The Monuments Men by Robert Edsel in the catalog
Link to The Orpheus Clock : the search for my family's art treasures stolen by the Nazis by Simon Goodman in the catalog
Link to Saving Mona Lisa : the battle to protect the Louvre and its treasures from the Nazis by Gerri Chanel in the catalog
Link to Göring's man in Paris : the story of a Nazi art plunderer and his world by Jonathan Petropoulos in the catalog
Link to The Woman in Gold Motion Picture directed by Simon Curtis in the catalog
Link to The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund De Waal in the catalog
Link to The Rape of Europa by Lynn H Nicholas in the catalog
Link to Last Folio: A Photographic Memory by Yuri Dojc in the catalog
Link to Paper Bullets : Two Artists Who Risked Their Lives to Defy the Nazis by Jeffrey H. Jackson in the catalog
Link to Saving Italy : the race to rescue a nation's treasures from the Nazis by Robert M. Edsel in the catalog
Link to Lost lives, lost art : Jewish collectors, Nazi art theft, and the quest for justice by Melissa Müller in the catalog
Link to The greatest treasure hunt in history : the story of the Monuments Men by Robert M. Edsel in the catalog
Link to Chasing portraits : a great-granddaughter's quest for her lost art legacy by Elizabeth Rynecki in the catalog
Link to Belonging and betrayal : how Jews made the art world modern by Charles Dellheim in the catalog
Link to The Amber Room : the truth about the world's greatest lost treasure by Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy in the catalog
Link to Art and the Second World War by Monica Bohm-Duchen in the catalog
Link to Monuments man : the mission to save Vermeers, Rembrandts, Da Vincis, and more from the Nazis' grasp by James J. Rorimer in the catalog
Link to The forger's spell : a true story of Vermeer, nazis, and the greatest art hoax of the twentieth century by Edward Dolnick in the catalog
Link to The Faustian bargain : the art world in Nazi Germany by Jonathan Petropoulos in the catalog
Link to Rescuing da Vinci : Hitler and the Nazis stole Europe's great art : America and her allies recovered it by Robert M. Edsel in the catalog
Link to Exiles+emigres : the flight of European artists from Hitler by Stephanie Barron with Sabine Eckmann in the catalog

Watch Videos

Art Looted by Nazis

During the Second World War, Adolf Hitler mandated that other nations’ cultural property be obtained, often forcibly, for the greater good of the state. The Nazis targeted private Jewish collections, public museums and organizations deemed to be at odds with Nazi ideology, such as Freemasons. Their goals were both financial and cultural. Hitler wanted to enrich the Third Reich and its leaders with exquisite and culturally significant treasures, sell looted art that did not reflect the Reich’s ideals for foreign currency, and create the Führermuseum, envisioned as the cultural center of the world, in his hometown of Linz, Austria.

The plunder and looting of art and other treasures was not limited to the Third Reich, however. The Soviet and American armies also participated, the former more thoroughly and systematically, the latter at the level of individuals stealing for personal gain. Other Axis countries also looted private Jewish collections.

The Washington Conference of Holocaust Era Assets (1998), followed by the Terezin Declaration (2009) renewed efforts to restitute cultural goods to their rightful owners. As a result various national organizations were created and numerous laws passed. Information about looted art has increasingly moved online, including databases of individual works still missing or items with unknown provenance. Continue reading from US Holocaust Memorial Museum

"Degenerate Art" Exhibition

Within the regime's first months, some officials took it upon themselves to interpret the leadership's vague statements on art. In spring 1933, local officials began opening so-called “chambers of horrors” and “exhibitions of shame.” These efforts aimed to mock modern art. In September, a local exhibition called “Degenerate Art” opened in Dresden. The exhibition then traveled through a dozen German cities. Curators across the country removed avant-garde works from museums and placed them in storage. These initial assaults on artistic freedom were not centrally organized. As a result, Nazi definitions of "good" and "bad" art remained unclear for years.

The regime attempted to clarify what “truly German art” looked like in summer 1937. The first annual Great German Art Exhibition opened in Munich at that time. Hitler reviewed selected artworks the month before it opened. He furiously ordered the removal of many examples of German avant-garde art. Goebbels witnessed this outburst and began making hasty plans for a separate exhibition. He intended to define and mock the types of art that the regime considered "degenerate." Hitler approved of the plan. The Nazis began confiscating thousands of artworks from German museums. 

The “Degenerate Art” exhibition was thrown together in less than three weeks. It opened in a cramped, improvised gallery space in Munich just one day after the nearby Great German Art Exhibition. Minors were not allowed inside because of the art's supposedly harmful and corruptive nature. The exhibition's organizers arranged more than 600 artworks in intentionally unflattering ways. They crowded sculptures and graphic works together. Paintings were suspended from the ceiling by long cords with little room between them. Many works were even left unframed and incorrectly labeled. Slogans painted on the walls mocked artworks as “crazy at any price” and “how sick minds viewed nature.” The walls also displayed quotes from Hitler and Goebbels. Their words provided the public with the official Nazi Party views on the purpose of art. Continue reading from US Holocaust Memorial Museum

Disposal of Confiscated Art and Pieces Still Lost

The Nazis began hastily confiscating more than 20,000 works of modern art in 1937. At that time, they made no plans for what would happen to the art. A year later, the Nazis passed a law legalizing the sale of confiscated art. They planned a large international art auction in Switzerland in June 1939. The Nazi regime profited greatly from the sale of confiscated works by famous artists like Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, and Vincent van Gogh.

The Nazis assured hesitant foreign art dealers that profits would not fund Germany's ability to wage war. Publicly, they promised that all funds would go to German museums. They did not keep this pledge. The regime funneled some of its foreign profits into armaments production. In 1939, the Nazis burned more than 5,000 paintings that they could not profit from in the yard of Berlin's main firehouse. 

Roughly one third of the most valuable confiscated artworks were ultimately sold to enrich the Nazi regime. Another third of the artworks disappeared. Some have reemerged over the years. With few exceptions, none of the works were returned to the museums from which they were taken. German museums have not received financial restitution. In rare cases, some art from private collections was returned to its rightful owners. Several European and American museums still possess artworks taken by the Nazis. Continue reading from US Holocaust Memorial Museum

Holocaust Restitution: Recovering Stolen Art

During World War II, Nazi Germany led a systematic campaign to loot and plunder art from Jews and others in the occupied countries. Much of the stolen art was recovered by the Allies in the immediate aftermath of the war, however, thousands of valuable art pieces were not returned to their rightful owners or were never relocated. In the decades following the Holocaust, a concerted international effort was undertaken to identify Nazi plunder that still remains unaccounted for with the aim of ultimately returning the items to the rightful owners or their families.

The Third Reich amassed hundreds of thousands of pieces of artwork - worth billions of dollars - and stored them throughout Germany. Other pieces deemed "degenerate" were legally banned from entering Germany so Hermann Goering and Joseph Goebbels tasked a number of approved dealers with liquidating these assets overseas and passing the funds back for the Nazi war effort. At the end of World War II, the Allies found plundered artwork in more than 1,000 repositories across Germany and Austria. Under the direction of the U.S. Army, nearly 700,000 pieces were identified and restituted to the countries from which they were taken, whose governments were then supposed to locate the original owners and return the art. Unfortunately, thousands of pieces either never made their way back to the rightful owners or the owners could not be tracked down.

In 1985, European countries began to release inventory lists of works of art "that were confiscated from Jews by the Nazis during World War II, and announced the details of a process for returning the works to their owners and rightful heirs." The recovery of stolen art took a more international scale in 1998. On June 30, thirty-nine countries signed a joint pledge to identify art stolen from Holocaust victims and to compensate their heirs. Nearly every European country - in addition to the United States, Canada, Argentina, Brazil, Russia and Israel - signed the agreement. Soon after, an Austrian advisory panel recommended the return of 6,292 art objects to their legal owners, most of whom were Jews.

In November 1998, the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum co-hosted the Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets in which delegations from forty-four governments and thirteen non-governmental organizations participated.  Though the conference addressed various issues related to the confiscation of assets by the Nazis during the Holocaust, the principal issue was looted art and the conference achieved a substantial degree of consensus on a set of principles dealing with looted art.  These principles include encouraging research into the provenance and identification of art, calling for these findings to be publicized, urging the establishment of a central computerized registry linking all Holocaust-era art-loss databases and encouraging alternative dispute-resolution strategies. Continue reading from The Jewish Virtual Library

Link to Art Heists that Made History resource guide series