by Victor Perry
Paris, 1942 - Before he was murdered by the Nazis, a young, Croation-born Jew named Erich Slomovic had amassed an impressive art collection. It included the works of Cezanne, Matisse, Picasso and Degas to name a few.
Like so many pieces of art and memorabilia recently discovered to have been the objects of Nazi plundering, Slomovic's paintings - worth more than $30 million - have never been returned to their rightful owners. The late Victor Perry, a journalist, researched the story of Erich Slomovic 50 years after the crimes were committed. After interviewing government officials, legal advisors, as well as Slomovic's friends in France and Yugoslavia, Perry followed the incredible and endless trail of lawsuits, counter-lawsuits, ignored court orders, duplicity and greed.
With over 125 pieces of Slomovic's art collection in the National Museum of Belgrade. Serbia and the rest tied up in a Parisian court, this tragic story of injustice continues to haunt the rightful heirs of the Slomovic art collection.
Professor Stephen C. Feinstein, head of the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies and Lecturer at the University of Minneapolis, Minnesota, wrote the introduction to Stolen Art. Professor Feinstein is the noted authority and lecturer on the subject of Holocaust art. Stolen Art was published by Gefen Publishing House (Jerusalem, New York 2000), Victory Perry, the author died in 1992. This book is very important because it demonstrates the fact that stolen art during the Holocaust era is a matter of moral justice. Victor Perry's account of the Erich Slomovic's collection is a fascinating story and a thriller. The issue of stolen art is a very important one and today it gets headlines in the media and it is a new subject of the world's legal systems and courts.
The following is the introduction of Prof. Stephen C. Feinstein, an expert on stolen art and the chairman of the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the University of Minneapolis, Minnesota: "The issue of stolen art and other items which have now become subject to restitution lawsuits are elements that confirm some of the unique aspects of the Holocaust. For, in addition to the murder of six million Jews, Nazi Germany and its allies confiscated hundreds of thousands of art objects - paintings, sculptures, jewels, unique printed materials and other items. That such objects were looted was nothing new. However, the Holocaust, as Zygmunt Baumann has noted, was a modern event. This looting took place in a time when there were deeds on properties, provenances on art objects, contracts, bills of lading and insurance policies. In short, there was a big paper trail, even though the victims had become ashes.
Victor Perry's journalistic account deals with the story of the collection of Erich Chlomovitch. Perry, who unfortunately did not live to complete his own account, nevertheless pursued this strange story of confiscated art like a detective. The story is interesting and adds to our knowledge of the monstrous pilferating that went on, especially against Jewish property.
Should a casual reader think that looting was something only the Nazis were involved in, that is not the case. Jews and looting go very well together. The Arch of Titus in Rome, built in 81AD, depicts in a bas-relief the loot from the Second Jewish Temple in Jerusalem being carried to Rome. Those items disappeared.
More recently, every war has seen looting. In the Napoleonic period, many art works were brought to Paris, then returned in 1815 after the French defeat. Napoleon had plans for making Paris the greatest center of art. He looted some of the most famous works of art from all over Europe. According to Gerard and Isabey it was only the Republic of France, "thanks to her power and the superiority of her artists and educational system," where these works of art could be properly and definitely protected. The French certainly realized the legal aspect of their activity. Therefore, even simple pillaging often assumed the appearances of legality by including legal title to looted works as compensation in peace treaties.
International treaties, developed since the mid-19th century, have tried to protect art from being a hostage of war and being used as reparations. While intentions may be uplifting, the results have been unclear, as art works are still being held hostage by governments and art museums.
However, the issue of looted art has been in the news since 1997. The most forceful case involved the alleged ownership of two paintings by Austrian painter Egon Schiele that were in a Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) exhibition in New York. This placed Ronald Lauder, President of the MoMA and also chairman of the World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO) Committee on Art Restitution in a difficult situation. These paintings have been claimed by the Bondi family, who had left the works on loan when they fled from Vienna to London in 1937. An initial report indicated that 16,000 such paintings were in France alone.
During the period of Nazi Germany's domination of Europe, there were several levels of looting and destruction. The heaviest destruction was in the Soviet Union. Less destruction of buildings and art works occurred in the west because of the short duration of the war against France.
During the occupation of France, the German government established the ERR Einsatstab Reichleiter Rosenberg under Alfred Rosenberg. In 1940, a secret document known as the Kummel Report, written by Otto Kummel, director of Reich's Museums, outlines works for looting. There were three categories: (a) works of special historical significance; (b) works of lesser importance; (c) works of local interest. Kummel's directive sought to ascertain which works had once been in German ownership, and were hence Aryan, to be returned to Germany. Kummel tried to establish provenance of art back to the Napoleonic period. The report even requested return of items from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Hermitage in Leningrad, now St. Petersburg.
An interesting "logic" of seizure of collections was developed by the Germans. First, art belonging to Jewish collections could be seized and looted. Thus, Vermeer's, The Astronomer, probably the most famous individual piece of looted art, moved from the Rothschild collection to Hitler's personal inventory.
However, because of ideological guidelines linked to Nazi attitudes toward "degenerate art," such items, usually abstract or expressionist items, could not go into German collections. Nevertheless, such items were seized, then sold abroad, usually via dealers in Switzerland, often winding up in private collections. Bogus galleries were sometimes set up in Switzerland to fence paintings. After the war, Switzerland made acquisition difficult as it had a five year statute of limitations, beginning when the painting or art work was acquired. After taking what was believed to be lootable, meaning Jewish owned art, the Nazis attempted to and succeeded in purchasing large collections for themselves as individuals. Hitler, Goebbels and Goering were some of the strongest buyers. Collections were often purchased at undervalued prices. This led the allies to declare that all sales of art in the Reich after 1933 were "null and void."
On the Soviet side, where there was massive carnage to both people and civilization, Nikolai Shvernik was appointed in 1942 head of Extraordinary State Commission to investigate Nazi crimes on Soviet territory. In Spring, 1943, Professor Bogdanov and Igor Grabar from Moscow wrote a memo suggesting Soviets should receive artworks as compensation for damage done to Soviet collections. There was a great difficulty in figuring out financial equivalents for value of lost work because of advent of Communism and unfamiliarity of Soviets with Western art markets and prices. Part of the emerging plan envisioned creating a super museum in Moscow of art that would be taken from the west.
Soviet trophy brigades were formed in early 1945 under the auspices of the special Committee on Germany. All decisions about the removal of art from Germany were done personally by Stalin. As the Soviets captured Berlin, many artifacts fell into their hands from the salt mines at Grasleben, near Helmstadt (on future border of Soviet and British zones of occupation), the Schonebeck salt mines near Magdeburg, the treasures of Dresden were discovered in a mine in Gross Cotta, near Pirna and were shipped to Moscow, while there was significant pillaging from art stored in Berlin's Zoo Flakturm and the Friedrichshain Tower.
The loot received by the Pushkin Fine Arts Museum in Moscow, which became a repository for Soviet trophy squads, was significant. In 1945 the Pushkin received fifty-two crates containing coins and medals, arms, paintings and furniture. This included the personal collection of Otto Krebs, a German industrialist. Among the items were two Manets, ten Renoirs, four by Van Gogh, four Gaugins, five Cezannes, and other works by Signac, Matisse, Picasso. Many were sent to the Hermitage in Leningrad and were exhibited only in February, 1995-96 (a 63 painting exhibition) as "Hidden Treasures."
During 1955 and 1956, State Committee on Culture decided to return damaged art works to Germany, and objects from public institutions to the GDR. However, items from private collections were not included. By January 1959, 1.6 million objects were returned. But from 1964 until the present, the issues surrounding the trophy art were never talked about - top secrecy imposed by a declining Soviet regime. Some lists of objects were revealed, and a few concessions were made to private collectors, such as one Degas painting returned to Walter and Dieder Scharf, grandson of German collector Otto Gerstenberg.
Americans were also looters, and the trophies are still being sold, now via the world wide web on sites like EBAY. Individual GIs often used the mail to get looted works back to the U.S. The smallest items were Nazi flags and papers, or an occasional nondescript painting on the wall of a house. The most famous case, however, involved Joe Meador, an American officer who stole the Quedlinburg treasures. These were found in 1990 in Whitewright, Texas and Germans paid $3 million ransom to get them back.
Perry's manuscript documents the search for art and its owners through another geographic area of the world, Yugoslavia. To whom did this collection belong? Erich Chlomovitch the heirs of Ambrosi Vollard, or the Yugoslav government? The story is complex. It is about more than art, as it also involved the destruction of the Jews of Bacina, including the Slomovic family. And the answers to this mystery case, suggest the absence of both justice and equity that often accompanies long judicial processes."
Prof. Stephen C. Feinstein, Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis
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