Art Restitution Ceremony

US Department of State 5 May 2015


Victoria Nuland
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs 
Washington, DC
May 5, 2015

ASSISTANT SECRETARY NULAND: Good morning everybody, and welcome to the State Department. What a wonderful day. Ambassador Wittig, Robert Edsel, honored guests, thank you all for being here. It is a pleasure to welcome you today for this historic moment of cultural diplomacy. We are particularly thankful to have the Holland family with us – Michael, Marjorie, Randy, and Linda – and we thank the Hetherington family as well, who were not able to join us.

For decades, the United States has worked to right history, to restore art and cultural property wrongfully displaced during World War II. We’ve been instrumental in creating the 1998 Washington Conference Principles on Nazi-Looted Art and have worked to return art unlawfully removed from collections during the U.S. post-war occupation of Germany. Today we have the privilege of continuing that effort. These five spectacular treasures that were removed from Germany after World War II are returned to the German Government so that they can be restored to their rightful owners.

The paintings on the table represent an important part of Germany’s cultural heritage. They have a long history. One set was given to the German royal family as part of a dynastic marriage. The other spent the war hidden in a German potassium mine to protect it. Both sets disappeared at the end of the war and resurfaced in the United States – the first reportedly bought in post-war Germany, the second won in a poker game. Seventy years later, just last year, they were given to Robert Edsel of the Monuments Men Foundation by two American families, who called the foundation’s hotline established for this very purpose. Because of their efforts – the efforts of the families, the efforts of the Monuments Men Foundation – the United States is now helping to right the errors of the past. And it’s particularly poignant to do so this week as we also mark the 70th anniversary of the end of the war in Europe.

The United States and Germany share a deep commitment to preserving cultural treasures wherever cultural heritage is the casualty of war, whether that is in Dessau or Milan during World War II, or in Aleppo and Mosul today. We’ll continue to lead in returning great works of art, memory, and culture to their rightful place, and the reason is simple: because art connects us to our pasts. It lifts the soul, it enriches the human spirit, and we deeply appreciate our close cooperation with Germany to further these goals.

We’re lucky to have private organizations and individuals in the United States, like the Monuments Men Foundation and Robert Edsel, to work with us, to bring missing cultural property to light, and to return it to its rightful owners. We’re equally fortunate to have families like the Hollands and the Hetheringtons who cared for these works of art for 70 years and decided to reach out to the Monuments Men Foundation. Today’s ceremony is only possible because of your generosity and your deep sense of justice.

Let me now turn over the floor to Robert Edsel, the founder and chairman of the Monuments Men Foundation for the Preservation of Art. But before I do that, a little bit about Robert himself. He has written three New York Times bestsellers on reclaiming and restoring art looted by the Nazis. One inspired the George Clooney movie, The Monuments Men, which was an adaptation of one of his books. Robert’s foundation was awarded the National Humanities Medal, and he has also received the National Archive’s Record of Achievement for his work. He has dedicated his life to correcting the wrongs of history and encouraged others to also come forward and do the same. He is himself an American treasure and a deeply good human being.

Robert, the floor is yours. (Applause.)

MR EDSEL: Well, I too would like to thank Secretary Nuland and Ambassador Wittig and your respective teams – Nicholas Dean, Susan Sandler for their great work in making this ceremony possible. In particular, I want to share her thanks to the Holland family and the Hetheringtons, who could not be here. They’re really a large part the heroes of this story, and I’ll have more to say about that in a moment.

As you hear, Ambassador – Secretary Nuland say, we’re coming upon a very, very historic date on Friday, the 70th anniversary of the end of the war in Europe. And when we think about that, it’s a moment when the work of the combat soldiers ended, but the work of the Monuments Men and Women, these soldier-scholars who volunteered for service to save so much of the things we value and treasure, was really just beginning. Over the course of the next six years, they would discover and return to the countries that had been looted, some 4 million objects. They would also in a lesser-known role protect and preserve almost 1 million cultural objects, paintings, and other things that belonged to German museums and individuals until Germany’s museums could be rebuilt and the citizens could reclaim these things. They were indifferent to the ownership of these things; it was a responsibility to get them back to everyone. And it’s important to acknowledge that Germany’s culture suffered greatly during World War II, and works are missing from those museums and private collections as well.

Last year, as a result of the George Clooney film, the Monuments Men Foundation decided to try and do something no one had ever considered doing, and that was creating, if you will, an America’s Most Wanted for culture. By reaching out to people throughout the United States, people of good will, and asking them to help locate and contact us with clues or tips or works of art that they might have, documents, manuscripts, that came home during World War II that they didn’t know the origin of. And it has proved very, very successful. People contact our toll-free tip line: 1-866-WWIIART, or 994-4278. And we are still researching our way through hundreds of leads that we’ve received. It’s very, very time-consuming work, but happily we’re here today to discuss two of the successes that have come to fruition, these two discoveries involving five paintings that will now be headed back to Germany.

We’re very, very pleased to tell you a little bit about these two discoveries. The first, involving the Hollands in these two paintings on – closest to me, happened as a result of an appearance I did on Glenn Beck’s television program and radio program in which the toll-free number was broadcast. And we received a phone call very quickly, before I had even made it back to our office, from someone that put us in touch with the Holland family, and it began a series of conversations that took place over a number of months.

And we learned about their aunt, Margaret Reeb, a very fascinating woman who served her country quite proudly. She was in the Special Services library branch, helping provide libraries for American servicemen overseas in Europe. She was in Europe after 1945 and at some point in time bought these paintings for a small, small sum off someone that sold them to her – we don’t know who; we don’t know how that person got these paintings – and brought them home, and there they sat in the safety deposit box. She passed, the Hollands went through her things and came across these things, and this is what we had a conversation about.

Now, in the instance of these two paintings, we were able to identify that they belonged to the Hesse family and had been taken from the Schloss Friedrichshof, or Castle Kronberg, as it’s referred today, near Frankfurt. The paintings had belonged to Princess Victoria when she left England and no doubt took these with her; one a painting by van Dyck or a copy of a painting by van Dyck – a very famous, known as the Triple Portrait of Charles I, a very fascinating painting, and has her royal seal on the back.

The other painting is actually – while it’s painted in a renaissance style, this Madonna and child, actually is a depiction of Queen Victoria holding her firstborn, Princess Victoria. So obviously something that was very near and dear to her. So we’re excited about the fact that these paintings will now have a chance to be returned to the Hesse family.

The second call occurred over our toll-free number as well, and it introduced us to James Hetherington, who called us and informed us about his stepfather, a man named Major Oftebro, who was a distinguished combat veteran. He received the Bronze Medal for service in Europe during World War II. He was responsible for guarding one of the potassium mines in Germany and did a wonderful job in identifying these works of art. In the course of time, he mailed them back to the United States. He described to us that he had won them in a poker game. Interesting story, but it’s part of the events that happen with respect to these works.

And he had these pictures in early 2000. He realized that they belonged to this museum in Dessau. The museum labels are on the pictures. And he described very poignantly the struggle he went through about not knowing what to do about these pictures because of the frustration and anger that he felt about Germany’s role during World War II. And as he explained it to us after he saw the movie, The Monuments Men, he contacted us and I asked him, “Why are you contacting us,” and he said, “After I saw the film, I understood what I needed to do. These pictures belong to Germany and it’ll be a great honor to my stepfather to make sure that they get back.” And these are obviously very emotional decisions for the parts of the family.

I should add that while we spend a lot of time talking about objects, we’re always focused on the lives of people. And I had an opportunity a few months ago to go to Germany and spend time at the Castle Kronberg and meet the Hesse family, but even more meaningful to me was to go to Dessau, a town that is having its challenges and difficulties. And I met both the director, Dr. Norbert Michels as well as their curator, who has worked there since the 1960s, a lovely lady named Margit Ziesche. And when we contacted her and when I met her, she was in tears. She had worked there for almost 50 years. No pictures out of the hundreds that are missing from that museum have ever been returned, and she said it was the happiest day of her life. And it’s something that’s always a great moment for us with the Monuments Men Foundation is to explain to people the impact that coming forward and doing what seem like these small gestures have, not just among people but in furthering the international relationships and strengthening these historical alliances that we’ve had with countries like Germany.

So it’s a great and very proud moment for us to be doing this. We are following the great work of the Department of State and promoting these relationships, and more so honoring the legacy of General Eisenhower and the Monuments Men who placed the respect for the cultural property of others at a level that we’ve never seen before. And it’s something I’ll certainly be speaking more to this Friday at the Eisenhower Presidential Library when I make remarks on the 70th anniversary of the war. And it’s our ongoing effort with the Monuments Men Foundation to not only engage the public in helping to locate and return more of these missing works of art – some of the hundreds of thousands that are still missing – but also to engage the public in the discussion about how we do a better job today protecting cultural treasures. And we’ve started a hashtag campaign, #IamaMonumentsMan, to engage the public and seek their input on how we as a society can do a better job in tracking down works of art that are missing and helping – have a voice in the discussion about the protection of cultural treasures today.

I want to close in saying to the Hollands, thank you so much for trusting me, thank you for trusting the Monuments Men Foundation and coming forward. The Hetheringtons couldn’t be here, but I certainly want to thank them, although they’re not here. You all have done a great thing for our country. You’ve done a wonderful thing for your aunt, Margaret Reeb and for James Hetherington’s stepfather, and we thank you very, very much.

And now I would like to turn over the podium to Ambassador Wittig. (Applause.)

AMBASSADOR WITTIG: Assistant Secretary Nuland, dear Toria, Mr. Edsel, Special Envoy Dean, and his two colleagues, Liz and Susan, distinguished guests, members of the Holland family, members of the Hetherington family, ladies and gentlemen, dear friends, what a wonderful event this is and I’m thrilled to be part of it. Thank you, Toria, thank you, Ambassador Dean for your team in making this happen here. And above all, I would like to extend my sincerest gratitude to the Monuments Foundation under the leadership and under the inspiration of Mr. Edsel and also the board of trustees.

Robert Edsel made today’s return possible and laid the groundwork for bringing these paintings back to Germany. And he just described his efforts that he brought to fruition. And I want to thank you on behalf of the museum in Dessau, on behalf of the Hesse family for your tireless effort. Your foundation continues the legacy of the legendary Monuments Men, namely to return all lost art and cultural property to their rightful owners.

This is a wonderful room here and I think the fact that you chose this beautiful Treaty Room testifies to the importance of that event, and for us it really means a lot. And I’m thrilled to be able to accept these five beautiful paintings, long believed to be lost, on behalf of their owners, the Anhaltische Gemaldegalerie, Dessau, the Picture Gallery of Anhalt-Dessau, and the Landgraf Donatus von Hesse. That’s his official title. It’s a real count of Hessen. You can be assured these works of art are coming home to a worthy setting. The Picture Gallery of Anhalt-Dessau is a nationally-acclaimed museum which, with some 2,000 paintings, holds the largest collection of old masters in Saxony. Its special highlights includes major works of Lucas Cranach, the older and the younger – and hope that the Holland family will make – they’ll be able to – and the Hetherington family will make a trip to the new destination there.

The two paintings of the House of Hesse come from the collection of Empress Frederick, the wife of the German Emperor Frederick III, Queen Victoria’s eldest daughter and formerly the heiress to the British throne. After marrying Frederick, she moved to her castle in Kronberg – I’ve never been there but apparently a beautiful place --

MR EDSEL: It’s nice. I recommend it. (Laughter.)

AMBASSADOR WITTIG: -- where she lived amid a stunning collection of artworks and paintings. These two paintings will now return there where they will be placed on prominent display.

Today’s ceremony testifies the close bond of friendship between our two countries. At the same time, it demonstrates our excellent cooperation in the restitution and return of art and cultural property, a cooperation that extends well beyond the government-to-government level to include nongovernmental organizations, private institutions, and individuals, many of whom are present here today.

It was said nearly 70 years ago today marks the end of World War II, a devastating war which the Nazi regime had unleashed over Europe. And this war brought not only untold human suffering but also an unprecedented campaign of looting and plundering of valuable cultural treasures by the Nazi regime. And 70 years later, we are still dealing with the effects of this catastrophe and it – effects it had on the world’s cultural landscape. And the recent discovery of the Munich art trove is just one particularly spectacular example. As Germans, we are aware of our special relationship, our special responsibility to ensure the return of Nazi-stolen artworks to their rightful owners. Germany remains committed to the 1998 Washington Principles that Toria mentioned, a very important milestone in that effort. We’re determined to ensure that cultural property that can be identified as being lost as a consequence of Nazi persecution and attributed to a particular victim is returned to the rightful owner or the heirs.

With the recent establishment of the foundation Deutsches Zentrum Kulturgutverluste, another decisive step was taken towards dealing with the state-organized theft of art during the Nazi reign of terror. The center will be a single point of contact and advise and financially support public institutions in search for Nazi-looted art. It will also spur the integration of international efforts in provenance research.

Ladies and gentlemen, I said at the outset that this ceremony is also a sign of our close American-German friendship, a friendship that has been built on mutual trust for many, many years. But beyond that, it’s also a moment of heartfelt happiness for the individual involved. And you spoke about it. Owners experience enormous joy when their cultural property, long thought lost, is returned to them. Often it’s not the material, but it’s the emotional, sentimental value of the object that is the source of their joy. Let me assure you that both the Picture Gallery of Anhalt-Dessau and the House of Hesse are experiencing this joy right now.

So let’s share their – in their joy over the return of these wonderful paintings. In fact, both owners would be thrilled to welcome guests – you, the families, but also other guests from the United States to experience the paintings in their original settings. Thank you. (Applause.)

ASSISTANT SECRETARY NULAND: Thank you all for joining us. May I invite the Holland family to come and have their photos taken with our guests of honor? And then anybody else who would like to view the art, they’ll be here for a little while. So come on up.
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