Former WWII Air Force colonel still in possession of confiscated artwork

KOB 6 February 2014
By: Caleb James, KOB Eyewitness News 4

He fought bravely against the Nazis in WWII.

Now 85-years-old, retired Air Force colonel Sidney Johnston saw an NBC Nightly News story Wednesday night about American soldiers rescuing priceless art from Nazi Germany.     

It reminded him of something he accidentally rescued from Nazi Germany nearly 70 years ago.

"When the Germans collected the arts, whatever was in sight was put in a crate," said Johnston.

Johnston thinks back to 1945, when he was only 19.

"Just cold as you could imagine," he recalls.

The cold of Augsberg, Germany all around. The war was over.

Johnston decided to make a fire to keep warm.

"You'd think after a bombing raid you'd be able to find some wood. I couldn't find a thing," he said.

In a gutted church, Johnston found himself face-to-face with two Nazi officers.

"I had a carton of those British Rainbow cigarettes," said Johnston.

For a carton of cigarettes, Johnston made the trade of his life.

"They gave me these two crates. I'm still just looking for the wood. That's fine, that's a bargain," he said.

For a reason he can't remember, Johnston didn't build a fire that night, and those crates were thrown in with his combat gear to be shipped home.

"I didn't have time to fool with them," he said.

The crates went into storage for nearly 30 years.

"Really I didn't open them up until I got here in Albuquerque," he said. "Every groove and everything was just perfect."

Johnston knew he was holding history.

Inside those crates were two perfectly preserved paintings.

One shows a quaint town with an alpine church at center square.

The other shows a simple vase of flowers.

Both paintings are ridged with oil paint, and lasting survivors of the world's most violent war.

"When I found out later on that they were stored with Adolf Hitler and Hermann Goreing's facilities I guess, it was the basement of this church that went down," said Johnston.

Johnston says he doesn't even know where to start to find the rightful owners of the paintings.

He says he would never consider parting with them and he doesn't want to sell them.

He is trying to find an insurance agent to help him take out a policy on the paintings.
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