to art portal to top of this pageArt historian, Bruce Cole, in reviewing the book Saving Italy by Robert M. Edsel, writes that when he was a young student in Florence
he wondered about a sign attached to the door of a Renaissance palazzo. The sign said "Historical treasure. Do not enter."
"Not until years later did I learn that it had been posted by the Monuments Men, a small group of men and women, mainly American and British soldiers, tasked with saving the vast treasure house of Italian art as the Allies clawed their way up the Italian peninsula from Anzio to the Alps in 1945. This "vast treasure house of Italian art" was, in the words of the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in Europe, known as the Roberts Commission (1943), refers to the fact that...
"... the Germans systematically looted art on a scale unprecedented in history." Thank you to Peter Humphrey for sending me the Cole review
The FührermuseumThe London Charter of the International Military Tribunal in 1945 and later the Washington Conference on Holocaust Era Assets, held in Washington, D.C. in December 1998 estimated that the Nazis stole some 600,000 works of art in Europe between 1933 and 1945. A "work of art" can mean a cultural artifact as small as a piece of jewelry or as large as a painting or statue. About 200,000 artifacts came from Germany and Austria. Such items came from private persons, art collections, and museums. What they saw and wanted, they took. Unprecedented. Nothing in human history comes close. Jews, disenfranchised in the early 1930s anyway when Hitler came to power, of course were obvious victims. Take their jewels, their paintings, whatever. Hitler was obsessed with the Führermuseum also called the Linz art gallery. It was never finished but was to be a cultural complex planned near his hometown, the Austrian city of Linz, near his birthplace of Braunau. Its purpose was to display a selection of the art taken by the Nazis from throughout Europe during World War II. The cultural district was to be part of an overall plan to recreate Linz, turning it into a cultural capital of Nazi Germany and one of the greatest art centers of Europe, putting Vienna (a city he detested) to shame.
The Hamburg Museum of Art and Design has a room for "Raubkunst" (art plunder)So, today, 2022. The war ended 75 years ago. How are we doing? Not very well actually. There are a few bright spots, but they come very late. Remember, the problem was "unprecedented." The solution —everything goes back to where it should— is absolutely impossible. A few examples, almost at random:
with a question mark and the comment "items we have but cannot identify .
—The Louvre and some other French museums have announced they will return 7 paintings to their rightful owners, Jewish families in Austria. The paintings were found by the Allies in Germany and were sent to the Louvre for safekeeping. Yes, 7 paintings. If you're counting, that's 600,000 minus 7.
— In 2021 the Bern Art Museum gives up art treasures stolen by Nazis. The Swiss museum said it would give up almost 40 works of art after a years-long study showed they were either stolen by the Nazis or of doubtful origin, but would retain almost 1,100 other works(!) from the same trove because they don't know where they came from. This requires close scrutiny. The museum got the entire 1600-piece collection of German-Austrian collector Cornelius Gurlitt, who died in 2014 and left more than 1,600 works to the museum. Gurlitt inherited the collection from his father, one of four art dealers tasked by the Nazis with selling art stolen from Jews or confiscated as "degenerate". The museum accepted the collection in November 2014 but renounced rights to artworks that once belonged to Jewish owners dispossessed by the Nazis, following an agreement with Germany. Bern is keeping 1100 paintings because there are "gaps in the ownership" history. In other words, how can we give them back if we don't know where they came from? Gurlitt's collection was only discovered in 2012 after customs officials entered properties in Munich in Germany and Salzburg in Austria.
Legal disclaimer. I'm not a lawyer, but I've seen them on TV. There are many reasons you or your museum may never get that painting back. Can you prove you own it? (Where's the 40-year-old bill of sale? Oh.) If you inherited it from your father, do you have his death certificate? Has the statute of limitations run out? Is the painting an example of "degenerate art"? Yes, a Nazi term but applies to much 20th-century art legally expropriated by Nazi Germany (to take "non-German" art out of circulation) and thus you never legally owned it in the first place. Some of it is well-known and has never been returned. "What? It happened in Austria? That's another nation, sir. You should take this up with the Austrian embassy. Sir, please stop crying. Please stand up. Security!" These are a few reasons why you may not have a legal leg to stand on. Real lawyers can come up with many more. image, right: Van Gogh. One of many degeneratesWhat is described above is egregious but, to a lesser degree, continues in many places in central Europe. The situation in Italy is much better due to the gentleman shown (image, right). He is Rodolfo Siviero (1911-1983), the Sherlock Holmes/James Bond of art recovery. He was just your ordinary wealthy intellectual art historian and collector until he got into the plunder-tracking game, and he was very, very good. In 1947 Siviero won the return of works taken from the art and archaeological museums in Naples by the Germans in 1943 and hidden in the Abbey of Monte Cassino, including the Danae by Titian (taken from the Capodimonte Museum and given to Göring as a birthday present in January, 1944, and sculptures such as the Apollo from Pompeii and the work you see being taken away (image, left) by soldiers of the Hermann Göring Division. Here they are posing in front of Palazzo Venezia in Rome in 1944 where they had sent the painting earlier.
The post-war division of Germany gave us the "Cold War" split into West and East Germany —the Federal Republic of Germany (a merger of the U.S., UK and French zones of occupation) and the German Democratic Republic (GDR) (the Soviet zone), respectively. Berlin, itself, was similarly divided, as was Austria. Everything was East and West. That all became moot in 1990 at the reunification of Germany. It is now all just "Germany" —like the good old days. Did that help get art back to the "rightful owners"? Some, but little and late. In February of 2000 the U.S. House Committee on Financial Services in Washington said "5 million 'cultural artifacts' were found in 1,500 sites in Germany and Austria— 2.5 million in the three western zones of occupation, 2 million in the Soviet zone, and .5 million in Austria... between 1944 and 1947 the U.S. and UK returned 2.5 million. Between 1944 and 1947 the Soviets sent 1.8 million from their zone to the USSR, which in 1955-1958 returned 1.5 million items to the GDR and other Warsaw Pact nations. The two sides also traded pieces such that you couldn't tell much in terms of "original" owners. Two "Collecting Points" in the U.S. zone funneled many thousands of items from the western zones back down to single nations, but that was as far as it went. Items went to a nation and not an individual or institution. Those nations then decided what went where and to whom. Thus, "everything goes back to where it should" was illusory, but nice try
There are dozens of places in Italy that owe to Rodolfo Siviero the fact that they have had at least some of their cultural patrimony
returned. He, himself, grew impatient with successive Italian port-war governments dragging their feet on the task. At the time of his
death he had a list of 1500 items he said were still out there. Many of them will never "come home". (That regards Italy. Some sources
place the stolen art as high as 10,000 items "still out there" in Europe as a whole.)
I mentioned the Abbey of Monte Cassino.The Germans made much of the Allied bombing of that edifice (where the Germans had stored large amounts of munitions, along with what they had plundered. The Allied invaders were thus the barbarian destroyers of churches and art. Yet even before the destruction of the abbey, the Germans had sent 15 cases of looted treasures stored there to Hermann Göring as a birthday present.
In Italy there is a unit of the Carabinieri (the national state police and part of the armed forces just like the army, navy, air force, and coast guard) that has the job of "safeguarding the cultural heritage" of the nation. It is the Comando carabineri per la tutela del patrimonio culturale. They have a lot to do even without WWII Nazi plunder. Handling everyday theft and vandalism is a full-time job. I have seen them in that capacity when they found a missing piece of a famous Neapolitan statue. They found it in Austria. The missing piece was the entire sphinx on the right side of the image.
That story is here.
Popular attention to the problems of Nazi art plunder is primarily due to books by Robert M. Edsel (mentioned in the first sentence of this entry. They have been translated into various languages and have generated original books in other languages. More recently, the film The Monuments Men generated a lot of interest. It is a 2014 war film directed by George Clooney, and written and produced by Clooney and Grant Heslov. The film has an all-star cast including Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, and Cate Blanchett. The very accurate, precise screen play by Grant Heslov is a gem.
The paintings trickle back. Just this morning (26 Jan '22), a well-known work by the Neapolitan artist Michele Cammarano (Naples 1835 – 1920) was returned, Charge of the Bersagliere (image, right & below). It was part of a "History of Italian Unification" display in an Italian barracks up in Verona when the Nazis grabbed it 1943. The Carabinieri "heritage cops" found it in Naples. The painting had already found its way to Naples. They found it in an art auction establishment in Naples! They ID'd it thanks to the large data bank of "Stolen Cultural Artifacts" put together from documents left by Rudolfo Siviero. It's been 80 years and these pieces of our history, of our culture, are scattered all over, but it's one more.
Even paintings this big.
I know, of course, that this "unprecedented" plundering of art, against the greater context of the Second World War —the Holocaust, atomic bombings, cities razed to rubble, and 50 million human beings dead— seems nothing. Yet I choose to believe that culture is something, and it's good we finally have time to pay some attention to it.
—Jeff Matthews, Jan. 27, 2022
2. Napoleonic Plundering of Art
"Seizing the Italian Relics" by George Cruikshank (1792-1878), a British
caricaturist and book illustrator. He did illustrations for Charles Darwin
and many others and was known internationally.
We spent some time a while ago talking about the vast Nazi plundering of art in Europe before and during WWII (see article above this one). To give other devils their due, we note the large-scale episodes of looting of artworks and precious objects carried out by the French army or French officials in the territories of the First French Empire, * including the Italian peninsula, Spain, Portugal, the Low Countries, and Central Europe. The looting continued for nearly 20 years, from 1797 to the Congress of Vienna in 1815. You don't hear too much about this, but at the time, it was a very big deal. It turns out that empire building has an evil twin, cultural kleptomania and Italy is an easy place to steal from.
*The First French Empire, officially the French Republic, then the French Empire after 1809, also known as Napoleonic France, was the empire ruled by Napoleon Bonaparte over much of continental Europe. It lasted from 18 May 1804 to 11 April 1814 and again briefly from 20 March 1815 to 7 July 1815.The amount of art taken by the French is hard to calculate as is how much was destroyed or lost. There are famous cases
such as the Venetian state barge, melted down for easier sale and transport, to finance French military wages. As well, many artworks and manuscripts were lost in transit or broken into pieces, which were often never reunited, as occurred with the marble columns of the Aachen Cathedral.
The French said all this was both a right of conquest and an advancement of public education and the Enlightenment ideals of
egalitarianism of the French Republic. Napoleon himself had close ties to Italy, which inspired both his imperial ambitions and his appreciation for its art. French rule was also more welcomed there than it had been in the Low Countries, especially among Italian intellectuals, which gave the appropriations some popular support. The "transfer" of works of art varied. A "Sister Republic" set up as a French puppet state, such as the Cisalpine Republic (it lasted from 1797 to 1802) was left pretty much alone (the whole territory had just become France, including art works and museums, so keep everything where it is. We don't need to steal it.). The French closed the monasteries and convents and took the art they wanted. Or if you fought and lost (as did Parma and Venice) the transfer of artworks was written into the conditions of your surrender.
Rome and the Papal States certainly resisted. The Papal States sent over 500 manuscripts and 100 artworks to France on the
condition that the French army would not occupy Rome. The Pope had to pay the costs of transporting the manuscripts and
artworks to Paris. Tensions ran high between the French and the Romans. In August 1796, Roman rioters attacked French
commissioners to protest the appropriations, and a French legate was assassinated. The Pope himself worked to delay the
actual shipment of the works.
In January 1799 and after the occupation of Naples, General Jean-Étienne Championnet began seizing and shipping artwork
in the Kingdom of Naples. In a message he sent on February 25, he said:
"I announce with pleasure that we have found the riches we had thought lost. In addition to the Gessi of Ercolano that are at Portici, there are two equestrian statues of Nonius, father and son, in marble; the Venus Callipyge will not go alone to Paris, because we have found in the porcelain manufactory, the superb Agrippina Awaiting Death; the life-size marble statues of Caligula, of Marcus Aurelius, and a beautiful Mercury in bronze and ancient marble busts of great merit, among which one of Homer. The convoy will leave in a few days. "
Paintings, sculpture, books, and gold were all taken by the French during the rule of the short-lived Repubblica Napoletana. The
previous year, fearing the worst, Ferdinand I of the Two Sicilies had transferred 14 masterpieces to Palermo; but the French soldiers plundered many works from nearby collections such as those at Palazzo Capodimonte.
p.s. Idle curiosity on my part. I wonder if famed British illustrator, George Cruikshank (image above), had any withering brushstrokes on British Special Envoy William Hamilton's theft of numerous works of art from Naples for shipment back to the British Museum. Some of it went down in the English Channel. I looked. Nary a one.3. British Art 'Collector', Sir William Hamilton
To pay the last devil (we hope) his due, this is about Sir William Hamilton, the art collector. (Notice I did not 'art thief'). I am too kind. If you want information about his scandalous juicy love affairs, see my general page on William Hamilton (from which I have rewritten these details.
In 1764 Hamilton was appointed to the Bourbon court of Naples as Britain's Envoy Extraordinary (and eventually Minister
Plenipotentiary, but never 'ambassador' although that's what everyone called him) and served in that capacity until 1800. He was typical of the “gentleman scholar” of his day — diplomat (or whatever) by profession, but propelled by an avid interest in history, art, and the natural sciences and by keen powers of observation. He was eventually made member of the Royal Society of London; his output of publications in various fields was considerable and valuable. He was knighted in 1772.
This red-figured water jar is considered the finest
in the first Hamilton collection of Greek vases.
Hamilton was an ardent antiquarian and archaeologist. He collected Greek vases and other artifacts, eventually the nucleus of the Roman and Greek section of the British Museum. As an archaeologist he actively tool part in the early digs at Pompeii and Herculaneum. In the days before careful archaeology, Hamilton was a pioneer. He was not at all in favor of the helter-skelter approach of the day: uncover the ruins, walk off with what you can, and cover up the holes again, all without taking notes. He favored drawing the ruins in situ and keeping objects together that had been found together for purposes of putting them on display. He was an amateur, yes, but a very good one.
(Hamilton helped bringing about the alliance between Britain and the Kingdom of Naples, according to which terms, Naples provided 6,000 men for service in Britain’s war against France. The troops served in Toulon where the British had occupied the city against the French Republican Army. The British and Neapolitans were finally expelled by a Republican force led by a young and soon-to-be-promoted artillery captain, Napoleon Bonaparte.)
Hamilton became quite the antiquities dealer early in his tenure as ambassador. Within a few years he had bought entire
private collections of vases, marbles, sculpture, etc. Hamilton exported and sold many of these items abroad although it was illegal to do so. Essentially, there were two Hamilton collections. He sold his first collection to the British museum in 1772. That is what became the nucleus of the museum's department of antiquities. Illustrations with commentary of the first collection (image, above) were published between 1766-76 in Naples in 4 volumes as A Collection of Etruscan, Greek, and Roman Antiquities from the Cabinet of the Hon. W. Hamilton. That first collection influenced artists of the day such as Angelika Kauffmann and Josiah Wedgwood, founder of the famous British pottery firm. The second collection (1798), however, was ill-fated. It was lost at sea when the ship transporting the collection, HMS Colossus, went down off the Isles of Scilly in December 1798; recent salvage has managed to recover some of the items. The first collection was vast and included (as cited in Ramage, below) hundreds of vases, terracottas, bronzes, bas-reliefs, gems, coins and miscellaneous sacrificial, agricultural and domestic items. Details on the second collection may be found in McPhee and Morris (below).
Hamilton’s activities as a collector and dealer of antiquities are documented in
—Ramage, Nancy H. “Sir William Hamilton as Collector, Exporter, and Dealer: The Acquisition and Dispersal of His Collections” in The American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 94, No. 3 (July, 1990);
—McPhee, Ian. Review of “Corpus Vasorum Antiquorum, Great Britain 20: The British Museum 10: Fragments from Sir William Hamilton's Second Collection of Vases Recovered from the Wreck of HMS Colossus by V. Smallwood and S. Woodford” in The Journal of Hellenic Studies, Vol. 124, (2004), pp. 212-213;
—Morris, Roland. H.M.S. Colossus: The Story of the Salvage of the Hamilton Treasures, Periscope Publishing,