Goering plunder returned

The Australian Times 9 July 2004

GERMAN art historians have traced dozens of Old Masters looted from private collections across Europe by Hermann Goering, the Nazi leader with a passion for art. They hope to see the works returned to their rightful owners after a show in Munich.

In an extraordinary feat of detection, the historians have put together the ownership history of 125 artworks from Goering's collection.

The works, including portraits by Lucas Cranach the Elder, Goering's favourite painter, are the last part of a huge collection of 1375 paintings, 250 sculptures, 108 tapestries, 75 stained glass windows and 200 pieces of antique furniture that had been snatched or bought at knock-down prices by Nazi art scouts on behalf of the corpulent, cocaine-addicted Reichsmarshall.

Goering, unlike Hitler, was determined to establish himself as a private collector. "This collection was amassed not on the basis of artistic expertise but out of vanity, megalomania, unbounded greed, all fed by a criminal lust to steal," says Reinhold Baumstark, director-general of the Bavarian state art collections.

When Goering was held after the war, he told Allied interrogators he had intended to pay for all of his paintings. Some had indeed been bought from dealers at reduced prices or at auctions where Jews had been forced to sell their collections.

Other paintings had been acquired - bought cheaply or stolen - by fellow Nazis to be presented to Goering on his birthday or some other ceremonial occasion. Nazi officials knew that the best way to please Goering was to give him a painting by Lucas Cranach; employees of the Prussian state council and the air ministry had part of their salaries docked in order to buy him paintings. Industrialists contributed to an art collection fund for Goering.

"The profits from the sale of confiscated Jewish art collections flowed into this fund," says art historian Albert Feiber.

The major works in the Goering collection were given back to state museums and galleries after the war.

US forces set up a central collection point where art could be returned, but exact ownership was too difficult to establish for many of the paintings and for decades they have been distributed - labelled as on loan to the German government - around the country's galleries or put into storage. It was only in 1999 that the Bavarian state galleries decided to start tracing the owners.

Ilse Von Zur Muehlen, an art historian, started by decoding the various stickers and scrawled messages on the back of each of the disputed paintings. She found various coded messages in Dutch, as well as old customs stickers on the back of Cranach's Portrait of a Lady against a Red Background, painted in 1534.

She managed to unravel a paper trail that led from an Amsterdam restorer in 1923, through various auction houses in Brussels and Switzerland, from Berlin to New York and Berlin again, until it caught the eye of Goering's art agent, Walter Andreas Hofer.

The painting, together with the 124 others, is on display in the Old and New Pinakothek in Munich.
© website copyright Central Registry 2023