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Hitler’s Wristwatch, A Nazi Legacy Hidden in German Museums

Alex Constantine - February 8, 2013

"... Deliberate Cover Ups: In the mid-1960s, Germany began selling off portions of the Hitler collection. In doing so, it resorted to traditional channels. Two of the art dealers involved in the selloff, Kunsthaus Lempertz in Cologne and Kunsthandlung Weinmüller in Munich, had also served as art suppliers to Hitler until 1945. ... "

Hitler's Wristwatch

A Nazi Legacy Hidden in German Museums

By Steffen Winter

Der Spiegel, January 30, 2013

Adolf Hitler and his Nazi henchmen amassed huge amounts of valuable art, jewelry and other collectibles prior to and during World War II. It is a poisonous legacy which German museums and governments have failed to properly address. The moral disaster continues to the present day.

For decades, item number 471/96 has only seen the light of day in exceptional cases. On those rare occasions, fingers encased in clean, white cotton gloves carefully lift the platinum watch out of its velvet-lined case. Diamonds encircle the round face, refracting the ambient light into a glittering cascade.

The watch, made in the southwestern German city of Pforzheim by Eszeha, was kept in a plain cardboard box after the war. It isn't difficult to discover whose wrist it once adorned. The following inscription, along with a handwritten signature, appears on the back of the casing: "On February 6, 1939. With all my heart. A. Hitler."

That February day was the 27th birthday of Eva Braun. The Reich Chancellor had dedicated the diamond-studded watch with a chain clasp to his mistress, 22 years his junior. The precious watch survived the turmoil of the ensuing violence virtually unharmed.

Today the watch is kept in storage at the Pinakothek der Moderne, a modern art museum in Munich, where it is registered as "Estate of Eva Hitler, née Eva Braun" -- in a cabinet that contains a large number of other devotional objects from the darkest period of German history.

The collection includes a 41-piece set of silverware engraved with Hitler's initials. There is also a diamond-studded gold cigarette case that belonged to Field Marshall Hermann Göring (inventory number 466/96), with an inscription from 1940 on the inside cover: "Filled with happiness and pride, we congratulate you on your appointment as 'Field Marshall.' With our deepest love, Emmy and Edda" -- Göring's wife and daughter.

For decades, the Pinakothek has had in its custody an entire case of blood diamonds that Hitler's paladin once called his own: a tiara with 32 carats of diamonds, a platinum tie ring with emeralds, gold cufflinks with rubies, a diamond ring and a large amethyst -- just the sorts of things a worldly fiend needs.

Out of Sight, Out of Mind

It's the kind of legacy that is inconvenient in the extreme for a fledgling democracy. What should a newly emerging political system do with such valuable refuse, the true origins of which are unknown? What was to be done with the gaudy ornaments of a regime that no one wants to exhibit? The answer proved simple. They were placed into storage and locked away, never to be seen again. Out of sight, out of mind.

Even today, this remains Germany's preferred way of dealing with the treasures that Hitler, Göring and all the other Nazi leaders snatched up and stole from others during 12 years of tyranny. The items being kept in a Munich museum's storage rooms are merely a tiny portion of the Nazi legacy that fell into the lap of postwar Germany. Almost seven decades later, the German state continues to hold paintings, rugs, furniture, graphics, sculptures, silver vessels, tapestries, books and precious stones appropriated by the Nazi clique. The German government owns about 20,000 items, including paintings, sculptures, furniture, books and coins. According to a 2004 estimate, the 2,300 paintings alone have an insurance value of €60 million ($81 million). Hundreds more are in the storage rooms of museums in the country.

No one likes to talk about this enormous cache of Nazi treasure, partly because of a feeling of guilt for possessing assets that are often of unclear provenance: Art objects acquired from Jewish collections that were sold off in a panic after 1933, or that were simply taken from their rightful owners before they disappeared into concentration camps.

Not all of this art is being kept from the public. A number of works are distributed throughout Germany in public museums, private collections, at the office of the German president, at the Chancellery in Berlin, in government guesthouses and in German embassies around the globe.

The treatment of the gigantic art collections of Hitler, Göring, Chancellery head and Hitler confidant Martin Bormann and other Nazi top brass counts as a particularly macabre chapter in Germany's efforts to come to terms with its Third Reich past. For almost 68 years now, those in charge of the art -- no matter their political persuasion -- have done little to investigate the provenance of the valuable pieces that make up this poisonous legacy and return them to their rightful owners.

Ridiculously Low

None of Germany's chancellors, be it Konrad Adenauer, who was persecuted by the Nazis, or former Nazi Party member Kurt Georg Kiesinger, emigrant Willy Brandt, former Wehrmacht officer Helmut Schmidt, Helmut Kohl, or those born near the end or after the war, Gerhard Schröder and Angela Merkel, showed an interest in going beyond the unctuous speeches that are traditionally given on Nov. 9 to commemorate Kristallnacht ("Night of the Broken Glass") and take the last step of doing everything possible to return the Nazi loot.

SPIEGEL embarked on a search for the legacy of the Third Reich and, in doing so, stumbled upon long transfer lists of the assets of former Nazi officials, as well as tax officers who were somewhat reluctant to remember the valuable legacy. Museum officials seemed embarrassed as they shamefacedly opened their vaults. The search led to contemporary documents that attest to how the Federal Republic of Germany and the State of Bavaria, in the 1960s and 70s, threw works from the Hitler and Göring collections onto the art market at bargain basement prices, but neglected to turn over the proceeds to the possible previous owners or to Jewish victim organizations.

Documents turned up that show how Bavarian lakeside real estate seized by the Nazis changed hands for ridiculously low prices, even though the proceeds from the sales were initially supposed to be paid into a special fund for victims of the Nazi regime. Hundreds of drawings were found that had been hidden in steel cabinets for decades, partly to avoid having to face the heirs of Jewish collectors. It is also possible now to reconstruct how Hitler's personal photographer, Heinrich Hoffmann, quietly and secretly withheld more than 100 paintings that are now part of a collection, probably worth millions, from the Bavarian government.

The effort led to an unmistakable conclusion: The handling of this Nazi legacy is a moral disaster that began in the 1950s and continues to the present day.

To its credit, five years ago the federal government created the "Working Group for the Research and Study of Provenance," which receives €2 million a year in government funding. But the group, which has four employees, has not been able to launch more than 84 research projects in museums and libraries since it was established -- 84 projects in 6,300 German museums. At this rate, it will take decades more before German cultural institutions have searched through their inventories for possible Nazi loot.

'A Lot to Be Done'

It's clear that without additional funding and without political will, what is currently the last chapter of reparations by postwar Germany will not come to a dignified end. Restitution is actually the reestablishment of an earlier legal state. As far as the return of the artworks is concerned, the Jewish Claims Conference (JCC) laments that there is "still a lot to be done" in Germany. The organization says that the funds made available by the federal government cover "only a small portion of the necessary measures." Instead, the JCC argues, "the heirs are forced to do their own research and, in case of doubt, fight for their family legacy and go to court."

Munich is the best place to begin tracking down the Nazi legacy. In 1945, when Germany was in ruins, up to five million works of art were gathering dust in mines and castle basements, monasteries and 1,500 other warehouse facilities of the defeated German Reich. Hitler had had his officials buy, steal or simply confiscate paintings and other precious items throughout Europe. The Allies were so well informed about this that they developed a plan to deal with the sensitive loot long before the end of the war. They chose a collecting point in a historic location: two adjacent, monumental structures, faced with pale Danube limestone, in downtown Munich. Hitler had used one of the buildings to receive state guests, while the other housed the Nazi Party headquarters.

The Central Collecting Point, or CCP, was formed in this gruesome reminder of the Nazi past, complete with balconies, marble staircases and an elaborate bunker system. Beginning in the summer of 1945, the artworks that had been secured in the three Western occupation zones began to accumulate at the CCP. They included Hitler's treasures, more than 4,700 objects that had been intended for the Führer Museum planned for the Austrian city of Linz, the 4,200 objects in Göring's collection, most of which he had kept at Carinhall, his country estate near Berlin, as well as the smaller collections of Joseph Goebbels, Joachim von Ribbentrop, Heinrich Himmler, Baldur von Schirach, Albert Speer, Martin Bormann and Hans Frank.

A Train Full of Art

Not everyone in Hitler's entourage had a passion for art. But because Hitler, a former postcard painter, collected art, they all collected art. In this absurd way, says US historian Jonathan Petropoulos, the party luminaries complied with the so-called Führerprinzip(leader principle), which held that they were to treat the interests of the Führer as their own.

At the CCP, the Americans examined and registered everything that the Nazi leaders had collected. If the provenance was easy to determine (and when soldiers or civilian employees had not already sold the loot on the booming black market), the works were quickly returned to their original owners. Petropoulous estimates that, using this approach, the Americans and the British had returned some 2.5 million cultural assets -- including 468,000 paintings, drawings and sculptures -- to their rightful owners by 1950.

In the initial postwar years, the Germans were largely uninvolved spectators in the Munich art market. But starting in the summer of 1948, the US entrusted the remaining inventory to the care of then Bavarian Governor Hans Ehard, who later turned it over to the Foreign Ministry in Bonn. There, a specially formed restitution committee conferred for almost three years, ultimately setting the objective that the restitution issue was to be resolved by the 1960s.

This, of course, was much easier said than done because, in many cases, it proved enormously difficult to determine the rightful owners. Nevertheless, in 1966, the German parliament decided that suitable works of art were to be lent to museums as well as to top- and upper-level federal government agencies. This resulted in something of a roadshow for Nazi art. At CCP headquarters in Munich, as well as at the Baroque Schleissheim Palace and the Bavarian National Museum, curators from all over Germany were invited to pick out works that might fit well into their museums. The event was closed to the general public.

'Painful Matter'

Treasury Minister Werner Dollinger announced the results to the world press in 1966. Almost 2,000 works went to 111 German museums and 660 paintings to 18 federal government offices at home and abroad. As a result:

  • There is a Sultanabad rug from the Göring collection at the Chancellery today;
  • a painting once owned by Göring hangs in the federal government's guesthouse near Bonn;
  • a three-drawer cherry secretary from the collection of Hans Posse, one of Hitler's top art thieves, stands in the Office of the Federal President;
  • a copy of a painting by Giovanni Canaletto, "Canal Grande with Punta della Salute and Doge's Palace," acquired by Hitler, can be viewed at the German Parliamentary Society.


At the time, the government led citizens to believe that the subject of restitution had been resolved. According to Minister Dollinger, a "painful matter" had been brought to a close. SPIEGEL at the time also praised the government's efforts, noting that the works of art were no longer burdened with the "taint of unlawful acquisition."

But, as it turned out, we and others were mistaken. In fact, the provenance of the works had not been thoroughly investigated by any means. It remains unclear today in some cases, such as the painting in Bonn, the desk at the president's office and the Canaletto copy at the Parliamentary Society.

To understand why Germany never truly cleared up the biggest art theft of the last century, it's worth taking a look back at the perpetrators' obsession with collecting.

The White Leather Tuxedo

In May 1945, the Allies found two trains in Berchtesgaden, a town in the Bavarian Alps, that had apparently been used by Field Marshall Göring. The cars were filled with art from around the world. Göring had engaged in a true rivalry with Hitler to acquire the most significant works in the European market. In his Carinhall estate, some paintings were hanging on the ceiling because there was no room left on the walls.

It is unclear how the heavyset Wehrmacht officer developed an appreciation for art. Although he was from a wealthy family and had lived in castles as a child, unlike Hitler, Göring had never shown a passion for art. He had finished high school at a cadet school and taken an officer's exam, a test which likely didn't address Rubens and Rembrandt.

The art collection that the Americans uncovered in Berchtesgaden had an estimated value of 600 million reichsmarks. His other assets included Veldenstein Castle, a bombed-out villa at the Obersalzberg mountainside retreat, a hunting cabin near the town of Bayrischzell, an account with the Reichs-Kredit-Gesellschaft bank in Munich worth 1.1 million reichsmarks, as well as curiosities like a collection of antlers, a white leather tuxedo and a French blanket from 1730.

Under an agreement with the Allies, the top Nazis' private assets went to the state in which they had been found after the end of the war. This meant that Bavaria benefited more than most other states. In addition to Göring, with his homes in the foothills of the Alps, many other key players in the Nazi system, like Rudolf Hess, Heinrich Himmler and Julius Streicher, had moved their possessions to secret hiding places in the south as the Allies advanced into Germany. The Munich State Archive has a list, compiled in 1949, of the confiscated assets of former Nazi Party leaders in Bavaria. The value of their real estate and bank accounts alone was estimated at 51.4 million deutschmarks at the time.

What happened to the Nazi properties is a particularly disturbing chapter in Bavarian postwar history, as documented in a 1971 report by the Bavarian Supreme Audit Court -- a document which was long kept secret and later forgotten. The auditors had scrutinized the State of Bavaria's real estate transactions between 1952 and 1967, including the sales of confiscated Nazi villas.

The 'Jovial Austrian'

It's a shameful report that tellingly demonstrates how quickly the victims of Nazi rule were once again given short shrift when it came to government transactions in the reconstruction years.

An unbelievable case occurred in the town of Kochel am See. It revolved around a 4,312-square-meter (about an acre) waterfront property with a wooden house on it. It was where Nazi youth leader Baldur von Schirach went to relax -- before he was sentenced in Nuremberg to a 20-year prison term for crimes against humanity. The property went to the State of Bavaria. In 1939, the idyllic site was already valued at a land price of 2.50 reichsmarks per square meter. But in 1955, Bavaria sold the property for 1.45 deutschmarks per square meter, which was well below its value, as the Audit Court later wrote in its critical but classified report.

To add insult to injury, the property was then resold after only 10 months, with the fortunate buyer managing to sell it at a 100 percent profit.

The short-term owner was very familiar with the house. It was Von Schirach's wife Henriette, who was also the daughter of Hitler's personal photographer Heinrich Hoffmann and the Führer's secretary for a time. As recently as the early 1980s, Henriette -- the grandmother of attorney and bestselling author Ferdinand von Schirach -- attracted attention with a book in which she had reinvented Hitler, turning him into a "jovial Austrian."

An isolated case? Hardly. Heinrich Hoffmann owned an attractive, 956-square-meter (about 10,000 square feet) villa in Munich's Bogenhausen neighborhood, worth millions today. In 1954, the State of Bavaria, which had been awarded the assets of the long-time Nazi (Nazi Party membership number 59), sold it for 52,000 deutschmarks. For the appraisal, the government's real estate agents had used a 1936 construction index. The government chose not to sell the property at public auction.

And the list goes on. Nazi Interior Minister Wilhelm Frick, executed in 1946 as a major war criminal, owned a magnificent villa on 32,196 square meters of land (8 acres) in Kempfenhausen on Lake Starnberg. In 1959, a publisher bought the estate from the government. It was appraised at only 6 deutschmarks per square meter, even though the authorities themselves had described the property as a "luxury property" on "park-like grounds in an excellent lakeside location." According to the Audit Court, the price was too low, and it concluded: "Even in 1959, there was also considerable interest in large properties in such preferred locations."

Selling Off the Hitler Collection

By today's standards, the Bavarian lawmakers would be found guilty of breach of trust, toward both the state's taxpayers and the victims' rights organizations.

A real estate deal concluded by Fritz Rüth, the president of the Munich regional tax office at the time, was also more than favorable to the buyer. In 1959, Rüth spent 7,000 deutschmarks to acquire the Schoberhof, a 5,311-square-meter property on Lake Schliersee that had been owned by Nazi war criminal Hans Frank, the "Butcher of Poland."

Neither the lucky bargain hunters nor the government brokers had much to fear. The Audit Court did not submit its classified report until 1971. And it had hardly been made public before a note was placed into the Finance Ministry files, to the effect that the public prosecutor's office was terminating its investigations because the statute of limitations had passed. The crime of breach of trust came under the statute of limitations after five years, and the last objectionable real estate sale had taken place eight years earlier.

As the auditors concluded, "none of the properties from the confiscated assets was offered for sale by public auction."

And why should they have been? The only people who could have had an interest in achieving the highest possible proceeds were the victims of the Nazi regime. Under the 1948 Bavarian law governing confiscation of property, the proceeds from these sales were to be paid to the Foundation for the Redress of Nazi Injustices and, following its dissolution, to the State Office of Restitution.

The Auerbach case illustrates the Bavarian authorities' reluctance in an especially brazen way. Philipp Auerbach, president of the Bavarian State Office of Restitution, had survived the Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps and, after the war, was a member of the Central Council of Jews in Germany. The bulky Hamburg native had a powerful voice and confidently represented, in Bavaria, the interests of those who had been persecuted for political and racist reasons. Auerbach rubbed people the wrong way and frequently received anti-Semitic mail -- until the government stopped him.

On March 10, 1951, he was arrested while on a business trip and accused of fraud, embezzlement, neglect of official duties and wrongful disbursement of reparations money.

'Victim of His Duties'

A court riddled with old Nazi Party jurists sentenced the Holocaust survivor to two-and-a-half years in prison. Two days later, the 45-year-old committed suicide with sleeping pills. An investigative committee in the state parliament rehabilitated Auerbach two years later, and little was left of the charges against him. Today the following words are inscribed on his tombstone: "Helper of the Poorest of the Poor, Victim of his Duties."

A complaint by the "Association of Jewish Invalids in Bavaria" also documents the climate in the early 1950s. The State of Bavaria, the letter to American occupation forces reads, was deliberately delaying restitution payments, even as it was spending billions on the non-Jewish population. Furthermore, the Christian Social Union, the conservative political party that held sway in the state (as it still does), was accused of neglecting the interests of Nazi victims for political reasons. The population, still living in want itself, also had little sympathy for the victims of Nazi dictatorship. Many felt that the government should first attend to the needs of Germany's war widows.

A similar mentality prevailed in Munich government offices, where a fair number of collaborators and accessories from the Nazi days worked. For instance, the general director of the Bavarian State Painting Collections from 1953 to 1957 was the same man who served in the position before 1945: Ernst Buchner. US historian Petropoulos describes him as "part of Hitler's kleptocracy." According to Petropoulos, Buchner played an important role in the seizure of Jewish collections and the Aryanization of Jewish art galleries. After the Night of the Broken Glass pogrom, it was Buchner who opened the National Museum to the Gestapo so that it could store Aryanized Jewish collections there. He also advised Himmler and Hitler on the appraisal of their looted art.

And he wasn't the only one. There were "experts" in key positions throughout the art business in the postwar era who assisted in various capacities in the biggest art theft of the 20th century. The artworks they had looted now fell into their hands a second time. Not surprisingly, they had little interest in tracking down Jewish owners.

The lack of attention Germans paid to the origins of their art treasures did not go unnoticed by the Americans. They considered selling what was left of the sensitive collections overseas. Perhaps it would have been the only morally correct approach to putting an end to Hitler's mad looting expedition. But the opportunity was missed.

Deliberate Cover Ups

In the mid-1960s, Germany began selling off portions of the Hitler collection. In doing so, it resorted to traditional channels. Two of the art dealers involved in the selloff, Kunsthaus Lempertz in Cologne and Kunsthandlung Weinmüller in Munich, had also served as art suppliers to Hitler until 1945.

According to the federal government, some 243 paintings, 47 works of graphic art, 10 sculptures and 24 articles of furniture from Nazi estates were sold at the time "to explore marketability." Because the market was still sluggish, the proceeds amounted to only about 1 million deutschmarks. Once again, the money was not paid to victims' rights groups but ended up in the federal budget instead, even though the provenance of the artworks that had been sold off had by no means been adequately investigated.

On the contrary, in some cases the origins were deliberately covered up, as a number of sales by the State of Bavaria show.

An example from a December 1966 Weinmüller auction catalogue: Lot number 1374, Vincent Sellaer, "Leda and the Swan." Regarding the painting's provenance, the buyer is referred to the Thieme-Becker Artists' Encyclopedia, Volume 30. On page 478, the encyclopedia lists the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Valenciennes, France as the last owner.

The truth, however, can still today be found on the CCP file cards in the German Federal Archives: "Property of Dr. R. Ley." Robert Ley, a major war criminal, was head of organization for the Nazi Party and head of the German Labor Front. The Allies found the painting -- clearly looted art -- in his possession in 1945. It was then transferred to the State of Bavaria

By the time the rightful owners began searching for the painting, it had long since been sold off. The new owner had no idea about its true origins. In the end, the rightful owners were paid the paltry 2,200 deutschmarks that the painting had fetched at auction.

Hitler's Photographer

Under the leadership of then Governor Alfons Goppel, a former member of the SA, the State of Bavaria sold 106 paintings in this dubious manner. Most were hawked at up to 40 percent below their appraised value.

And the proceeds? They were invested in new artworks, specifically those with untainted provenance. Munich's Pinakothek der Moderne acquired Georges Braque's "Woman with Mandolin" in this fashion. In 1967, the Bavarian state parliament had approved the purchase of the work, valued at 1.25 million deutschmarks, for the State Paintings Collections. The public was given a vague account of how the purchase was to be financed: with a contribution from the state, a contribution from the Association of Friends of the Collections and "sales from the property of the state gallery." The latter referred specifically to the proceeds from the scandalous sale of Nazi art.

Much of what went wrong in the restitution debate, that is, what should have happened or what shouldn't have been allowed to happen, is reflected in the case of one individual: Heinrich Hoffmann, born in 1885, Adolf Hitler's personal photographer since 1923.

Hoffmann, who Werner Friedmann, founder of the Munich Abendzeitung newspaper, described as one of "the greediest parasites of the Hitler plague," was one of the main profiteers of the Nazi state. The publisher and photojournalist, as a member of the "Commission for the Exploitation of Confiscated Works of Degenerate Art," advised the buyers for the Führer Museum in Linz and was named a professor of art by Hitler himself. In 1943, his personal fortune was valued at almost 6 million reichsmarks. Four years later, the Americans listed 278 works of art that Hoffmann claimed, untruthfully, to have acquired legally.

Hoffmann spent five years in prison after the war. In 1947, the Allies classified him as a "Major Offender," which meant that his assets were to be fully confiscated, a penalty he fought until 1956. Ultimately, he was permitted to retain 20 percent of his assets. In October 1956, the Bavarian Finance Ministry ordered "that all art objects (belonging to Hoffmann) under administration of the Bavarian State Paintings Collections" were to be "turned over to Mr. Heinrich Hoffmann, Nazi Party photographer."

Receiving Honecker on Göring's Carpet

The paintings were apparently seen as a way to reinstate that portion of his assets which the denazification ruling had granted him. The estimated amount was 350,000 deutschmarks.

The act of mercy, largely unknown to this day, was the apparent result of settlement negotiations between the photographer and the finance minister. And Hoffmann was clever enough to keep the settlement quiet, and to not accept cash. The files suggest that no one was interested in wasting any further thought on the provenance of Hoffmann's paintings.

The consequences became apparent just two years later when the Austrian government lodged a complaint with Bavaria. According to correspondence in the archives of the Bavarian Paintings Collections, Austria demanded the return of two paintings from the Hoffmann collection: works by Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller, the most important painter of the Viennese Biedermaier movement. The Munich officials replied somewhat sheepishly that they had already turned over the paintings to Hitler's former confidant in 1954.

Even before reaching his settlement with the state government, Hoffmann had repeatedly managed to reclaim individual paintings from the state government's custody. A popular technique was to have associates tell the state authorities that they had received a painting from Hoffmann's collection as a gift during the war. Hoffmann's physical therapist was one of them. On July 22, 1955, he was handed "The Angler," a painting by Carl Spitzweg, at the Bavarian Paintings Collections. He had claimed that the photographer had given him the picture during the Hitler era as a token of his gratitude. Conveniently, the art-loving physical therapist brought along his personal art historian, who scrawled his signature on the handover document: "Dr. Kai Mühlmann."

It was the same Mühlmann whom Göring had once named his special envoy for art in the occupied eastern territories -- an SS man who had verifiably seized Jewish collections and supplied them to Hoffmann.

Missing the Dignified Route

In the roughly seven decades since the end of World War II, there was one moment in which Germany could have, and should have, succeeded in embarking down a more dignified path. In December 1998, 44 countries met at the Washington Conference, where they agreed to track down art confiscated during the Nazi era and identify the original owners. A "just and fair solution" for the return of the works or compensation was to be found with the heirs. For the first time in decades, it was once again possible to file restitution claims.

State Minister for Culture Michael Naumann, a member of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), enthusiastically supported the implementation of the Washington Declaration and, by virtue of his office, expanded the definition of looted art: If Jews had sold paintings to support themselves while fleeing the Nazis, they or their heirs could also file claims for compensation. Naumann wrote to all leading German museums and urged them to address provenance research. But, as he recalls today, he received a response from only one institution, the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation.

To this day, provenance research has remained a stepchild of accounting for Germany's Nazi past -- lacking in financial means and human resources, but replete with accusations that heirs care more for money than art. At least the federal government has now examined most of the paintings it holds, and German museums are gradually following suit.

The only specialist currently addressing the provenance of thousands of works in the Bavarian Paintings Collections is art historian Andrea Bambi. She likens her work to a police investigation. More than 10 years ago, her employer launched a research project to examine the provenance of 126 pictures from the Göring collection, 72 of which are still in the museum's hands. Bambi's job is to examine the rest of the massive Nazi legacy.

It's a role that is both unique in Germany and rather peculiar. In the spirit of the Washington agreement, she has an obligation to the victims of the Nazi reign of terror. On the other hand, she is paid by the museum and has lifetime tenure there. Her job is a balancing act, because she has to satisfy both sides. Heirs, such as those of Jewish art dealer Alfred Flechtheim, accuse the Collections of taking a restrictive approach.

A Chaotic Collection

In most of the cases, the art detective's job is a difficult one. Bambi walks out of her office, takes a sharp right around the corner and enters a dimly lit library, where there is a beige folder on a table. It contains parts of 3,500 document pages that Bambi has to comb through to ascertain the origins of the Munich paintings. It's a collection of loose sheets of paper, unsorted, with carbon copies on parchment paper, and with poorly legible notes made by long-retired colleagues. Estimated prices for sculptures are noted in red pencil on the back of a calendar sheet from February 1 of some year. It's a chaotic collection of documents.

Bambi says that she could use three staff members: an archivist, a historian and an art historian. The estimated personnel costs would be about €230,000 a year. The Bavarian finance minister, who holds both the rights to Hitler's book "Mein Kampf" and the entire legacy of the Führer, has refused to commit any funds to the project so far.

There is clearly a need for the federal government to step in. If the collections of the three Munich Pinakothek museums, the Schack collection and the 12 satellite galleries are combined, a total of 4,400 paintings and 770 sculptures that have accumulated in the Collections since 1933 will have to be examined.

The legacy is so extensive that not even Bavaria's senior-most politicians are unaware of the former Nazi property they use on a daily basis. The Bavarian State Chancellery, for instance, used a building on Prinzregentenstrasse for representational purposes for many years. Former Bavarian Governor and CSU Chairman Franz Josef Strauss used the great hall for cabinet meetings, as well as to receive state guests, like East German leader Erich Honecker.

A giant carpet was laid out on the floor of the room: 15.18 meters by 7.27 meters. The motif was Persian, but the carpet had been made in India. It still has the number 6498 on the bottom, which the Americans gave it at the CCP. The carpet also has a file card in the Federal Archives, where it is referred to as a "giant carpet" that was found in Berchtesgaden. It was on the Göring train.

Stuck Between Wooden Pallets

Very few people know what a significant role the carpet played in German history. It allegedly was once laid out at Göring's Carinhall estate, in the hallway to the library. And then there are photos of East Germany's anti-fascist leader Honecker's 1987 visit to Prinzregentenstrasse, with Strauss, Edmund Stoiber and a number of other prominent Bavarian politicians. And it all happened on Göring's rug.

Today the carpet is rolled up in a hallway at the Schack collection, where it illustrates the size of the dilemma the Nazi legacy poses. No one can use it anymore, and yet no one dares sell a carpet that is so steeped in history. A potential buyer from the US turned up a few years ago, but left empty-handed. Now the carpet lies, forgotten and wrapped in plastic, between old wooden pallets.

Of course, forgetting is also sometimes part of a strategy. The State Graphic Collection in Munich has 601 drawings and watercolors by the painter Rudolf von Alt (1812 to 1905), once owned by the Nazi Party. Hitler confidant Martin Bormann had procured the pictures for Hitler's Obersalzberg retreat, the Führer buildings in Berlin and Munich and the planned Führer museum in Linz. Drawings by the painter were also on the list of artworks returned to Hitler's personal photographer, Heinrich Hoffmann.

For decades, the Munich museum officials knew that, until the 1930s, the works were primarily the property of Jewish business people from Vienna. But what happened to them?

Since 1959, they were kept in two steel cabinets in the former Nazi Party administration building, which is now home to the State Graphic Collection. The status quo was only disturbed two years ago, when the London-based Commission for Looted Art in Europe came calling and filed claims for a watercolor. It demanded the return of the work "The Old North Train Station in Vienna," which had belonged to a Jewish woman from Brno, in the present-day Czech Republic, until 1938. The Commission announced its intention to pursue other claims as well, enough to finally push the State Graphic Collection to embark on a provenance project.

Breathtakingly Absurd

There are references to Jewish collectors like Eissler, Goldmann, Mautner and Zuckerkandl. The museum managers have promised to examine their collection "as thoroughly as possible." And they regret, of course, not having approached possible heirs directly.

It is a late start. And the fact that it has taken so long probably has a lot to do with an earlier generation of curators and their reluctance to exhibit the magnificent collection, for fear that Jewish heirs could promptly file claims for the art.

For years, a number of museum directors pursued a breathtakingly absurd line of reasoning. This attitude flared up as recently as 2006, when a painting by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, "Berlin Street Scene," worth about €30 million, was handed over to the granddaughter of a former Jewish owner, who lived in England. The incident prompted Michael Eissenhauer, president of the German Museums' Association at the time, to sharply criticize the "big business" of restitution art. "It's worthwhile to embark on a hunt and take a look at which paintings could inject new blood into the art market."

A "hunt"? By the victims? Former State Minister for Culture Naumann recalls a speech by Berlin art auctioneer Bernd Schultz, which was published in the Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper, under the heading: "They Say Holocaust, But They Mean Money." That speech, says Naumann, "contained, without the man even noticing it -- which only made it worse -- a classic anti-Semitic sentiment. Shameless."

People like Gunnar Schnabel, who represents the interests of the heirs, continue to run up against the limits of openness and cooperativeness among museums today. Since the Washington conference, the Berlin attorney has taken on 30 cases relating to valuable paintings. The work often escalates. "I begin by researching three paintings and end up with 50," says Schnabel. On behalf of Jewish heirs, Schnabel has wrested a painting by Carl Spitzweg ("Fiat Justitia") from the Office of the Federal President. He is not particularly conciliatory as he sums up his experiences: "Negotiations with the museums remain tough and incredibly expensive."

No Evidence of Fairness

The cost of research is especially staggering for the victims. Schnabel remembers the case of a colleague, in which a painting was sold for €2.4 million after restitution. The legal fees amounted to more than €2 million, all but eliminating the concept of compensation. Schnabel accuses museums of sometimes "fighting with everything they have, and stalling the negotiations." Even if they do examine their collections once in a while, says the attorney, he knows of no cases in which a museum has approached heirs directly.

Monika Tatzkow agrees with his assessment. She too represents Jewish heirs, including her current clients, the heirs of Max Liebermann. A great-grandson has hired the Berlin provenance researcher to examine 62 paintings, 51 drawings, 10 volumes of graphics and one watercolor. The list includes top artists like Manet and Monet, and the works could be in museums or private collections. "The evidentiary requirements are getting more and more stringent and exaggerated," says Tatzkow. After 70 years, the heirs are still expected to furnish the "last sales receipt," to ensure that the restitution is completely watertight. The historian sees no evidence of fair and just agreements, as stipulated in Washington.

Former State Minister for Culture Naumann wants the next federal government to pass a law that goes beyond the moral impetus of the Washington agreement. "Lawmakers have to outline more specific restitution claims." He also has an idea of where the money for more intensive provenance research should come from. There are currently plans for a museum dedicated to the Sudeten Germans, those ethnic Germans forced out of lands belonging to present-day Czech Republic. The federal government together with the state government of Bavaria is to provide €30 million for the facility. It would be the third or the fourth such museum dedicated to the expellees, says Naumann, and hardly anyone visits the ones that already exist. "Diverting €10 million from this budget and putting it into provenance research is a possible approach." The states would also have to become more committed, says Naumann.

Of course, there are countless cases in which clarification of the ownership issue will no longer be possible, and in which doubts will never be set aside. But does the rule have to be: When in doubt, rule in favor of the state? Or the museum?

The Germans could learn from the Austrians. After the end of the war, 8,422 works of art, most of Jewish origin, were stored in a monastery near Vienna. Only in 93 cases were heirs able to prove ownership. After 50 years and many agonizing debates, the Republic of Austria decided on a solution that was morally unassailable: An auction at Christie's, with the proceeds benefiting Nazi victims. The October 1996 auction raised €11 million.

Could this be a solution for Göring's diamonds and Eva Braun's platinum watch? Perhaps it would only reignite the trade in Nazi devotional objects, as critics fear. But the Internet is already filled with such objects today: Hitler's brass desk set, notes by concentration camp doctor Josef Mengele, letters and postcards written by Joseph Goebbels. A few rings and tiaras are hardly likely to make a difference.

The idea at least merits a public debate. After all, the sale of the precious objects ought to raise enough money to pay for a few additional positions in provenance research.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

89539f50433a49ca8dc1df9c18dadc50 - Hitler's Wristwatch, A Nazi Legacy Hidden in German Museums

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