Art Recovered by the Monuments Men Returned to Nazis After WWII

The Monuments Men rescued many stolen treasures from Nazis near the end of World War II. That’s a fact.

This special unit of art historians saved over 10,000 masterpieces from Hitler’s grasp, only to see them sold back to Nazis for profit. That’s also fact.

The great works of art they liberated were handed over to the Bavarian government when the men returned stateside, and rightfully belonged to many Jewish families displaced or murdered in the war. But the Bavarian government didn’t return all of the art to those families. According to findings by the British NGO Commission for Looted Art in Europe (CLAE), in some cases, the art was sold back to the descendants of the Nazis who stole it in the first place.

The Monuments Men handle the Ghent Altarpiece.
The Monuments Men handle the Ghent Altarpiece.

The Art Newspaper reports the story of Adolf Hitler’s photographer, Heinrich Hoffman, who purchased Jan van der Heyden’s “Dutch Square,” plundered from the Jewish Kraus family during the reign of the Third Reich. As Allied forces closed in on the Nazis and discovered Hoffman’s collection, along with many other works in the Altaussee mine, they handed it over to the Monuments Men, who relinquished the works to the Bavarian state.

The Kraus family escaped Vienna in 1938, but they would never see “Dutch Square” again. The painting and many other works were quickly returned to Hoffman’s daughter, the wife of a Nazi war criminal condemned at Nuremburg, who sold it a few months later. The Bavarian government continued with this practice for almost 20 years.

“It is particularly striking that the Hoffmann family was getting virtually everything back that it claimed with minimal proof of ownership and this went on for almost two decades,” said Anne Webber, of CLAE. “The burden of proof was much higher for claims from Jewish families—from the victims of these Nazi leaders.”

The painting is now displayed in Xanten Cathedral, which has yet ignored the ownership claims of John Graykowski, a grandson of the Kraus family. The Bavarian government hasn’t been as cooperative with concerned archivists on the matter, either.

“All governmental agencies are required by law to make their documents accessible. And the State Art Collection is a governmental agency,” said Margit Knom-Marcon, director of the Bavarian State Archive. “But we do not have a single document from the State Art Collection’s archive.”

The pilfered Madonna of Bruges being recovered by the Monuments Men.
The pilfered Madonna of Bruges being recovered by the Monuments Men.

A joint investigation by CLAE and Munich-based newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung discovered that many state-administered institutions in Bavaria have been hoarding art extorted from Jews during the ’30s and ’40s.

“While [the Nazi families’] demands were dealt with promptly and efficiently and with little requirement to prove their claims of ownership, the looted families had their claims thrown out or impossible hurdles created to prevent them recovering their artworks. The families are still experiencing the same barriers to recovery of their looted works of art today,” CLAE reported.

The fight to return the stolen works of art to their rightful places continues, as do the stories of many WWII veterans who so bravely served. Follow this link to read about Edwin Shifrin, whose astonishing escape from a Nazi prison camp in January, 1945 truly deserves respect.

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