Newspaper article International New York Times

Cruel Twists Emerge in Search for Art Looted by the Germans ; after World War II, Nazi Families Reacquired Art They Stole from Jews

Newspaper article International New York Times

Cruel Twists Emerge in Search for Art Looted by the Germans ; after World War II, Nazi Families Reacquired Art They Stole from Jews

Article excerpt

Nazis pursued hundreds of paintings and other work loot even after being forced to return it.

Years after World War II, American officials here entrusted more than 10,000 confiscated artworks to the Bavarian authorities to return to the rightful owners, many of them Jews whose property had been plundered.

But new research in a mass of yellowing archives here makes clear how relentlessly Nazi families pursued the Bavarian officials, badgering them, often successfully, to return art they brazenly continued to view as their property.

Hitler's private secretary, Henriette von Schirach, and her family pleaded with officials of the Bavarian State Painting Collections to turn over nearly 300 works, including a small landscape, "View of a Dutch Square" by the Dutch artist Jan van der Heyden.

Before the war, the painting had been owned by Gottlieb and Mathilde Kraus, Jews who fled their Vienna penthouse, leaving behind a carefully packed collection of art that was then confiscated by the Gestapo in 1941.

Von Schirach persuaded the Bavarians to give it back to her for a pittance -- 300 deutschmarks, which was roughly $75 then or nearly $600 now.

"The basic element of this story is this: They stole from my family," said John Graykowski, 62, the Kraus's great-grandson, "and then they gave it back to the guy who stole it from them. How does that work?"

The archives -- part of the Bavarian State Paintings Collection - - show that hundreds of works were actually sold back at discounted prices in the 1950s and the '60s to the very Nazis who had taken them, including the widow of Hermann Goring, a top aide to Hitler who amassed a collection of more than a thousand works of pillaged art.

This murky chapter of history came to light because of Mr. Graykowski's search for about 160 missing works from the Kraus collection. In 2009, the Virginia lawyer enlisted the help of the Commission for Looted Art in Europe, a London nonprofit that researched the archives for him and made key discoveries.

Anne Webber, a founder of the commission, said her researchers concluded that the resale of looted art to Nazi families had hardly been isolated. "They called them a 'return sale,"' she said. "Why were they returned to them rather than the family from whom they were looted? Nobody knew."

The return sales to Nazi families -- first reported last month by the Munich daily Suddeutsche Zeitung -- have sparked political recriminations. This week, a Bavarian state parliament committee demanded an accounting from government officials about the extent of the system to resell art to Nazi families and a tally of how many looted works remain in government possession that could be returned to the proper heirs.

Henriette von Schirach's grandson Ferdinand von Schirach -- a best-selling German author whose grandfather was imprisoned for 20 years after being convicted of deporting more than 60,000 Austrian Jews to concentration camps-- has pledged to investigate the provenance of his late grandmother's art. "We need to know about the evil," he said. "That's the only way we can live with it."

The discreet art trade with Nazi relatives emerged in 1949, four years after the war, when the American military transferred responsibility for restitution of looted works to the West Germans and Austrians. Munich became the hub of a network of art dealers and state officials who had helped drive Nazi looting and then after the war fostered trafficking in the same works.

The painting collection's archives illustrate in great detail the efforts by families like the von Schirachs to retain the art. The family patriarch was Baldur von Schirach, a Nazi governor in Vienna who was tried for war crimes in Nuremberg. While he was imprisoned in Spandau, his wife, Henriette, and relatives worked for more than a decade to reclaim art, carpets and furniture. …

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