Historical Fiction author, Jennifer S. Alderson, is taking a look at the Restitution of Artwork stolen by the Nazis during World War Two.
Before moving to the Netherlands, I knew very little about the restitution of artwork stolen by the Nazis during World War Two – a topic that plays a central role in my novel, The Lover’s Portrait: An Art Mystery. Only after I began to study art history in Amsterdam did I understand the complexities involved – for both the claimant and the cultural organization or government tasked with caring for the artwork until the legal owner is found.
The ‘Monuments Men’
As an art history buff, I was quite familiar with stories about the ‘Monuments Men’ discovering crates of paintings stored in castles, salt mines, and abandoned train carriages. This international group of civilian museum curators, art historians, and other cultural specialists were officially part of the ‘Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Program’ (MFAA), recruited in 1943 by the Allied Forces to track down and recover hundreds of thousands of artistic and cultural treasures stolen from art collectors, cultural institutions, businesses and individuals all over Europe.
MFAA Officer James Rorimer supervises U.S. soldiers recovering looted paintings from Neuschwanstein Castle.
These precious objects – sculptures, paintings, furniture, religious relics and artifacts – were brought to a series of collection points, where the ‘Monuments Men’ attempted to determine which country their former owners hailed from. In rare cases, documents had been crated up with the artwork which clearly identified its last legal owner. However, the artwork’s destination was most often based on a ‘best guess’ by the plethora of well-educated and well-meaning MFAA experts.
Dutch Artistic Treasures Returned from Germany
But what happened after the artwork was returned to their suspected country of origin – in this case the Netherlands?
Try to imagine it’s October 1945 and you are in Amsterdam, capitol of the Netherlands. Five months earlier, the city was freed from five long years of Nazi occupation. Hundreds of thousands of locals are missing or dead. Many homes are empty shells; anything of value – from furniture to floorboards – has been torn out by desperate looters, leaving rat-infested ruins behind.
The trams haven’t run in four years, not since the Nazis banned public transportation. And even if they were able to, any wood used to hold the rails in place had been torn up and burned for heating and cooking long ago. Oil and gas are non-existent. Food has been rationed for years and most daily household products are simply unavailable. Many government offices have been closed for months, due to a lack of sufficient personnel and the resources to keep the lights on.
And then, from the far reaches of Europe, a plane full of precious artwork and artifacts lands at Schiphol airport on the morning of 8 October 1945. Days later, truckloads of irreplaceable paintings, sculptures, religious icons and relics begin arriving at the Rijksmuseum, delivered into the chaos that was once the lively, well-organized city of Amsterdam.
Despite all the hardships, the Dutch government organized the first exhibition of looted artwork, entitled Dutch Artistic Treasures Returned from Germany, in the spring of 1946, in the hopes of reuniting these pieces with their legal owners. In 1950, the Rijksmuseum organized a second, heavily publicized exhibition of the remaining unclaimed artwork.
|The Rijksmuseum visible from the Museumplein.|
order to claim their property, claimants had to provide definitive proof of
ownership in the form of a title transfer, purchase agreement, or similar
document. Considering the exorbitant
value of many of these works of art – paintings by Rembrandt, Picasso, Matisse,
Van Gogh, Frans Hals, and the like – the Dutch government wasn’t making an
Thankfully, many claimants had taken their important paperwork with them when they fled the country or went into hiding. They were the lucky ones.
Too many of those attempting to claim their property had literally lost everything during the war. They were sent to concentration camps, their homes stripped clean and sold off, belongings stolen, clothes burned, and loved ones murdered. They had absolutely nothing and no one left. How could they fulfill the government’s seemingly simple requirement? They could not and their artwork remained in the care of the Dutch government.
Restitution of Stolen Artwork influenced by Swiss Bank Scandal
Fast forward to the year 1995. The world was shocked to discover that several Swiss banks knew they held dormant Jewish WWII bank accounts, yet refused to return the money to the surviving relatives because the claimants couldn’t supply the bank with a death certificate. Those murdered in German concentration camps never received one, leaving the families powerless. Only after the World Jewish Congress took up the case on behalf of several Jewish organizations, did the banks finally agreed to return money owed to the account holders’ relatives.
Suddenly no institution – cultural or otherwise – wanted to risk being stigmatized as profiting from the atrocities of the Second World War.
Archival Research and Digital Collections
Dutch museums and cultural institutions – as most of those across Europe – began actively searching through their collections, earmarking any pieces which might have been stolen from their rightful owners by the Nazis. Teams of researchers began the tedious process of reconstructing the provenance of artworks and objects, often searching through archives and libraries all over Europe to trace the paths these pieces had taken in their lifetimes.
Simultaneously, museums were beginning to digitalize their collections, for the first time allowing the public access to all of their objects, including the majority hidden in their vast depots. Thanks to this influx of new information, heirs were able to hire private investigators or conduct their own research into these digitalized collection databases.
Strangely enough, Adolf Hitler’s policies have aided the restitution process. Because Hitler considered Germans and Dutch citizens to share a common linguistic and cultural heritage, his troops weren’t officially allowed to seize art or cultural objects from Dutch citizens – as they were given free rein to do in other countries. Here they had to ‘purchase’ the artwork – often from owners placed under duress or blackmailed into doing so – and create official purchase contracts for the transactions. The title transfers and purchase agreements created by these Germans became important resources for both Dutch researchers and the heirs of the unclaimed artwork.
In most cases, the art and the rightful owners were reunited and both the museum and family found peace. In exceptional cases, two or more parties submitted seemingly legitimate claims on the same object or collection. These rare stories inspired the plot of my art mystery, The Lover’s Portrait.
These more complex claims are the ones which garner the most media attention. Stories passed down from one generation to the next, fading photographs and old letters with vague references to the painting in question are all brought into play – argued over and re-interpreted by numerous museum personnel, documentation experts, and art historians before judgement is finally reached – always leaving one party certain justice has not been served and vowing to fight the claim to the bitter end.
|The home of Jewish art dealer, Jacques Goudstikker. He died in a tragic accident while fleeing the Netherlands and his prestigious collection was confiscated by the Nazis. The resulting restitution cases made the international news.|
Giveaway is now closed.
Giveaway is now closed.
Jennifer S. Alderson is giving away a cloth bag from the Anne Frank House, a bookmark featuring canal houses in Amsterdam, and a lovely card.
All you need to do is answer this question:
Who is your favourite artist?
Leave your answer in the comments at the bottom of this post.
• Leave your answer in the comments at the bottom of this post.
• Giveaway ends at 11:59pm BST on April 16th 2019.
• You must be 18 or older to enter.
• Giveaway is only open to residents of the Internationally.
• Only one entry per household.
• All giveaway entrants agree to be honest and not cheat the systems; any suspect of fraud is decided upon by blog/site owner and the sponsor, and entrants may be disqualified at our discretion.
• Winners will be announced in the comments.
The Lover’s Portrait: An Art Mystery
A portrait holds the key to recovering a cache of looted artwork, secreted away during World War II, in this captivating historical art thriller set in the 1940s and present-day Amsterdam.
When a Dutch art dealer hides the stock from his gallery – rather than turn it over to his Nazi blackmailer – he pays with his life, leaving a treasure trove of modern masterpieces buried somewhere in Amsterdam, presumably lost forever. That is, until American art history student Zelda Richardson sticks her nose in.
After studying for a year in the Netherlands, Zelda scores an internship at the prestigious Amsterdam Museum, where she works on an exhibition of paintings and sculptures once stolen by the Nazis, lying unclaimed in Dutch museum depots almost seventy years later.
When two women claim the same portrait of a young girl entitled Irises, Zelda is tasked with investigating the painting’s history and soon finds evidence that one of the two women must be lying about her past. Before she can figure out which one and why, Zelda learns about the Dutch art dealer’s concealed collection. And that Irises is the key to finding it.
Her discoveries make her a target of someone willing to steal – and even kill – to find the missing paintings. As the list of suspects grows, Zelda realizes she has to track down the lost collection and unmask a killer if she wants to survive.
The Lover’s Portrait is available as audiobook, paperback, eBook:
Read for FREE on
Jennifer S. Alderson
rorimer_at_neuschwanstein.jpg : MFAA Officer James Rorimer supervises U.S. soldiers recovering looted paintings from Neuschwanstein Castle (Photo credit: NARA / Public Domain)
The Rijksmuseum visible from the Museumplein. (Author's photo)
The Lover’s Portrait in Amsterdam. (Author's photo).
The home of Jewish art dealer, Jacques Goudstikker. He died in a tragic accident while fleeing the Netherlands and his prestigious collection was confiscated by the Nazis. The resulting restitution cases made the international news.