The Revelations of a Nazi Art Catalogue

New Yorker 12 February 2016
By Sarah Wildman

Adolf Hitler presents “The Falconer,” by the Austrian painter Hans Makart, to Hermann Göring as a present.

The folder is, at first glance, unremarkable: gray, archival, tied with a small, neat ecru ribbon. Jotted in pencil is a notation: “Collection GOERING, inventaire des peintures.” Inside is a ledger, brittle with age but well preserved, its handwritten notations spanning two-hundred-odd pages and eleven years. The first is from April 1933: a listing for a Venus painted in oil on wood by Jacopo de’ Barbari, purchased in Rome for twelve thousand lira, displayed in a private office of Carinhall, the hunting estate outside Berlin belonging to the Nazi second in command, Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring. One thousand three hundred and seventy-five paintings follow this Venus, all of them carefully recorded: date of receipt, title of painting, painter, description, collection of origin, and destination. Tintoretto, Renoir, Rubens, Monet, Corot, van Gogh, Botticelli, a large group of Cranach; it goes on. After 1940, the pace of acquisition becomes frantic, obsessive, and the names of the European masters are often matched in provenance with names of some of the greatest art-collecting families and dealers of the early twentieth century: Goudstikker, Rothschild, Rosenberg, Wildenstein. It all stops abruptly in the spring of 1944.

Hermann Göring’s personal art log is a twisted treasure map, a guide to looting and pillaging and gift-giving among the Nazi brass, and a tracking mechanism for the Nazi occupation of Europe. It has long been known that Göring was among the most zealous of Nazi art collectors: at the end of the war, he packed the booty stored at Carinhall into trains and fled south toward Berchtesgaden, in Bavaria; he blew up Carinhall behind him. The collection was discovered by Allied soldiers, and, in 1945, the New York Times pegged the worth of the works at two hundred million dollars (part of a slew of breathless American coverage, according to Nancy Yeide, the author of “Beyond the Dreams of Avarice: The Hermann Goering Collection”). The catalogue of Göring’s art provides a perversely fascinating yardstick for the changing taste of a man known for personal eccentricities as well as horrifying brutality. The emphasis, at first, is on northern European Romanticism, along with the nude female form. But the collection shifts, becomes more expansive, and, occasionally, eschews the Nazi laws on so-called degenerate art to scoop up some of the modern greats. “I fully admit I had a passion for collection,” Göring said on the witness stand at Nuremberg, with a “vulpine” smile, according to Janet Flanner, who reported from the trial for The New Yorker. “And if they were to be confiscated, I wanted my small part.” He was convicted of crimes against humanity and sentenced to hang; he killed himself with a purloined cyanide capsule before the sentence could be carried out.

In October, “Le Catalogue Goering” was published, in French, by Flammarion, in conjunction with the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to a flurry of almost universally enthusiastic French press. On the television station France 3, Isabelle Richefort, the deputy archives director, explained the fascination: “For many people, wartime looting is a rather abstract concept,” she said. “Here we can see how it happened, day by day.” Only Le Monde was unimpressed, complaining that stories of Göring’s collection were not truly new (though this catalogue had not previously been examined), and that it was not printed like an art book (the images provided are roughly postage-stamp size, for the most part).

It is true that “Le Catalogue Goering” is not a coffee-table book. The publication of the catalogue reflects a new sort of scholarly interest in Nazi writing, which walks a difficult line: explaining Nazi ideology and sustaining historical interest in the period without turning its documents and relics into fetishes. The recent German reissue of “Mein Kampf,” published with extensive commentary, falls into the same category, as does the translation, a few years ago, of the Alfred Rosenberg diaries, published by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and also bracketed by analysis. In the case of “Le Catalogue Goering,” it can seem perilously titillating to peer over the edge of propriety into the eccentric private life of a monster. Göring’s world was one of tremendous luxury, with access to everything from jewels to zoo animals to morphine (he was an addict). It was all acquired, of course, at a horrific price. And the catalogue provides a fuller picture of how spoliation itself was an integral, early part of the Nazi effort to degrade, dehumanize, and expel the Jews, setting the stage, ultimately, for mass murder.

The original catalogue is still held at the French diplomatic archives, a crisply anonymous high-security building in the suburb of La Courneuve, about five miles outside Paris. I visited in October, accompanied by Frédéric Du Laurens, a career diplomat, now retired—he was the ambassador to Argentina in the nineteen-eighties—whose last job was director of the archives. Du Laurens pointed out to me that from 1940 to 1944 Göring acquired what amounts to roughly “three paintings each week.” Frau Emmy Göring had a particular liking for French Impressionists, he explained, and many of the paintings were given to her as gifts. (Christmas always brought a fresh collection.) Every January 12th, Göring’s birthday, the Nazi brass, including Hitler, showered him with art. With the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands, Belgium, and France, there was almost entirely unfiltered access to some of the most important Western art in the world. Nancy Yeide, who carefully assessed the goût of Göring in her book, notes that his haul was hung carelessly in his enormous hunting lodge: layered on the walls, without regard for presentation, origin, or appreciation.

For nearly half a century after the war, the Göring catalogue lived in the home of Rose Valland, who, in 1932, had become a volunteer at the Jeu de Paume museum and, during the occupation, was made the museum’s overseer. Valland was a self-created success among Paris’s art-world élite: a lesbian who had grown up in a small town, the daughter of a blacksmith. She was also a purposefully quiet woman who used her position—and her knowledge of German—to record Nazi efforts to strip France of its artistic patrimony. The Jeu de Paume became a warehouse, and a transit station, for the systematic sluicing of French art into the Reich, particularly work that had been in private—and Jewish—hands. Göring visited the museum some twenty times to select items for himself, his wife, his homes. He was not alone in his greed: the best of the best was supposed to be kept for Hitler; the next tier of Nazis would then select for themselves. Valland kept a careful log, night after night. Some of the “degenerate” art, she wrote, was burned—including, it is believed, pieces by Dalí, Picasso, and Braques. In 1944, as the war neared its end, Valland alerted members of the resistance to the last train bound for Germany carrying French art. Her name now graces the lobby of the French diplomatic archives.

Hermann Göring’s personal art log is a twisted treasure map and a tracking mechanism for the Nazi occupation of Europe.

In the first years after the war, there was a flurry of activity to repatriate the art despoiled from France and scattered throughout Germany and Austria. Teams of “Monuments Men” (Valland among them, representing France) set out to search for the places where Nazis had hidden Europe’s treasures. As the Cold War kicked in and the Korean War began, the verve for restitution waned. But Valland never let go. She spent her life searching for pieces that had not been restored to their rightful owners, travelling to Eastern Europe and searching museums for pieces. (Cate Blanchett plays a character loosely modelled upon Valland in the 2014 movie “The Monuments Men,” based on the book of the same name by Robert Edsel.) She seems to have come across Göring’s catalogue sometime in the immediate post-war period—and she held on to it, perhaps to use for a second book, about lost art. (Her first, “Le Front de L’art,” from 1961, was the basis for the Burt Lancaster film “The Train.”) The ledger was in one of a thousand boxes turned over to the French Ministry of Culture just before her death, in 1980. There it moldered. Then, in the early nineties, her collection was turned over to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which finally began to take an inventory. Soon, the world returned to where Rose Valland had always been. After the Washington Conference on Holocaust Era Assets, in 1998, global interest in the art stolen by the Nazis was renewed.

I asked Ambassador Du Laurens if the archive had an obligation, in some way, to report that they owned such a document. Was that why they chose to publish it? Did the archive owe something to the victims? The question seemed strange to him. The hope, he said, was to advance the return of art. Later, I asked the same question of Jean-Marc Dreyfus, a professor in Holocaust studies at the University of Manchester, who edited the book. I have known Dreyfus for years; I first followed him around Paris for a story in 2004, after he co-wrote a book, “Des Camps Dans Paris,” on the elaborate Nazi-era looting of French Jews. I turned to him often for advice when I was writing my own book, about a search, through archives and cities, for the lover my grandfather left behind when he fled Vienna. “You should know after your research that archives do not exist per se,” he replied, via e-mail. “They are ‘invented’ by the way people look for them and read them.”

The Flammarion book is a peculiar item. Several introductory texts preface the translated catalogue. One senses that we, the readers, are being discouraged from enjoying the art in this context, and are meant instead to be overwhelmed by the extent of the looting, by the mechanisms for this form of Nazi domination, the sheer scale of greed. (The book is six hundred pages.) The first of the introductions, by the former French foreign minister Laurent Fabius, describes the Göring collection as “an odious hunting trophy, the fruit of the villainous plundering of jewels of European art.” In the center of the book, along with black-and-white images of Carinhall at the height of Göring’s power, there are three gorgeously rendered full-color photographs of four pages of the catalogue itself, with Talmudic explanations of the handwriting, the categories used, and the process by which the art was inventoried. In conversation, Dreyfus described the catalogue as “the shopkeeper of both terror and the most brilliant European tradition.” “It is also,” he noted, “a document reflecting and implementing Nazi ideology.” The majority of art included was “suitable” art, and the catalogue offers a narrative of whose lives were considered worthy of such art, and whose lives were deemed expendable.

“For me, the most important thing is to keep [alive the] memory of what happened,” Corinne Herschovitz told me, in Paris, in October. We were sitting in a bistro in the Fifth Arrondissement. Herschovitz is an art-restitution lawyer. In 1999, she won a major case restoring several paintings that had been hung on the walls of the Louvre to their rightful owners. Like others I spoke to—including Simon Goodman, the author of “The Orpheus Clock,” about the search for his own family’s vast looted holdings, and Lynn Nicholas, the author of “The Rape of Europa”—Herschovitz is frustrated that the book is not indexed, that it was not written or set up to be used specifically as an aid in restitution efforts. Still, she said, its very presence is ballast against the drift toward amnesia. The catalogue, with its quotidian brutality, will serve as one of what French historians call the lieux de memoire, places of memory, she told me. As we lose eyewitnesses, the theory goes, we will turn to letters and locations—and art catalogues—to bear witness to the horrors of the past.

It may be that the most important aspect of “Le Catalogue Goering” is not anything new that it offers, exactly; in fact, what it tells us is about how much is still to be known—the questions we have not yet learned to ask. After I returned from France to this country, I spoke with Lucian Simmons, the senior provenance expert at Sotheby’s. For two decades, Simmons’s work has focussed not only on insuring the legality of a sale but also on reminding buyers of the world of art and luxury these pieces once inhabited. “I’m delighted it is published,” Simmons said. “You can never have too many sources when you are trying to build a provenance. Is it going to move the dial hugely? Probably not. But it may provide an answer in due course to a question we hadn’t had before. You are rekindling memories, and you are bringing back the memory of patronage, and experience, which the Nazis tried to wipe out.”
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