Quantity took priority over quality in Hermann Goering’s sprawling art collection, much of it plundered from Jews.
His gluttony for oil canvases becomes clear in Nancy Yeide’s “Beyond the Dreams of Avarice: The Hermann Goering Collection,” the first comprehensive catalog of as many as 1,800 works that the Reichsmarschall stashed away at his country estate Carinhall, built as a hunting lodge in a nature reserve outside Berlin.
Adolf Hitler’s right-hand man in the Nazi party and a morphine addict with opulent tastes, Goering liked portraits of German generals and political heroes, Dutch Old Masters and paintings of women, preferably unclothed. He amassed some 50 works by Lucas Cranach the Elder and 30 by Peter Paul Rubens.
He wasn’t interested in the monumental, bland contemporary art that Hitler promoted. He also kept some looted Impressionist pictures, deemed “degenerate” under the official Nazi line.
Yeide, a provenance researcher at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, has a head of dark hair that sets off her pale skin. We met during an art-restitution conference at the Prague Congress Center, where we sat down to talk beside brown- tinted windows overlooking the old city and castle.
“The collection was not filled with masterpieces, as was alleged frequently after the war,” Yeide says. “Most of the very best of the objects came from previously vetted collections from major collectors. Most of the minor works were gifts to Goering.”
The emphasis on excess shouldn’t be surprising in a man who kept pet lions, had two private trains, jingled emeralds in his pockets like coins and “liked to recline in an enormous red silk kimono weighed down with heavy gold trim,” as historian Robert Edsel, the catalog’s publisher, writes in the preface.
Photos show that the paintings hung haphazardly, almost on top of each other, at Goering’s enormous home, which was fitted with an indoor swimming pool, casino and offices for his doctor.
“It doesn’t seem too symmetrical, or thematic or art- historical,” Yeide explains. “It just seems to be excessive.”
Convicted of war crimes and crimes against humanity at the Nuremberg trials, Goering took potassium cyanide hours before he was due to be hanged. The Reichsmarschall described himself as a “Renaissance Man” and told an American psychiatrist present in Nuremberg that “I am so artistic in my temperament that masterpieces make me feel alive and glowing inside.”
Among the art stolen from Jewish families like the Rothschilds and Goudstikkers were works by Joshua Reynolds, Paolo Uccello, Francois Boucher, Jean-Honore Fragonard and Anthony van Dyck. After his buyer, Walter Andreas Hofer, had selected the best, Goering would go to the Jeu de Paume in Paris to view the booty before it was shipped to Carinhall.
Yet he deluded himself that he wasn’t stealing. “During a war, everybody loots a little bit,” Goering said in the Nuremberg interviews with the psychiatrist. “None of my so- called looting was illegal.”
He also tried to make his plundering look like legitimate transactions, Yeide says. He asked dealers to send him bills he never paid or pretended works were on loan.
“A characteristic of his seems to be this disconnect between his actions and his statements,” she says. “That does seem to be part of his nature -- denial.”
The catalog features works that Hitler gave to Goering, including an official portrait of the Fuehrer and a watercolor Hitler painted himself. Hitler also gave him one of the best- known paintings in the collection, “The Beautiful Falconer” by Hans Makart.
Goering and Hitler competed for the best of the spoils seized from Jewish collectors. Hitler generally won, amassing a huge trove for the art museum he planned for the Austrian city where he grew up, Linz. He reportedly once said that while he collected for the German people, Goering collected only for himself, according to Yeide.
In his fervor to get a Johannes Vermeer to crown his collection of Old Masters, Goering made one glaring error. He traded 150 paintings for a forgery by Han van Meegeren. Confronted in his jail cell with the truth, he “looked as if for the first time he had discovered there was evil in the world,” according to Stuart Leonard, the U.S. official who broke the news to him.
About 80 percent of Goering’s loot -- most of which was safely evacuated before Carinhall was bombed -- has been traced and returned to the rightful owners. Yeide says she hopes that the catalog will help to track down artworks still missing.
The book, an illustrated tome more than 500 pages long, is primarily aimed at auction houses, art dealers, museums, libraries, victims of Nazi looting, scholars and collectors.
“Beyond the Dreams of Avarice” is from Laurel Publishing (518 pages, $250). It’s available exclusively from the publisher, either on its Web site, http://www.goeringart.com, or by calling +1-866-994-4278.