A number of years following World War II, American officials in Munich, Germany deposited more than 10,000 confiscated works of art with Bavarian authorities, so that those authorities would return the works to their rightful owners, which included many Jews whose property had been stolen amidst the displacement of the Holocaust.
However, as reported by the New York Times, new research has revealed that Bavarian officials often caved in to the demands of Nazi families who felt the art was their rightful property, and returned the pieces.
Hitler’s private secretary, Henriette von Schirach, badgered Bavarian officials to turn over nearly 300 works, including a small landscape, “View of a Dutch Square,” to her family. The painting was originally owned by Gottlieb and Mathilde Kraus, Jews who escaped from Vienna, leaving behind a collection of art that was grabbed up by the Gestapo in 1941.
“The basic element of this story is this: They stole from my family,” commented John Graykowski, the Krauses’ great-grandson, to the Times, “and then they gave it back to the guy who stole it from them. How does that work?”
Research has shown that hundreds of stolen artworks were actually sold back at discounted prices in the first decades after the war to the same Nazis who had taken possession of them,
It was Graykowski’s search for numerous missing works from the Krause collection that brought these sordid details to the fore. In 2009, he recruited the Commission for Looted Art in Europe, to assist him with the difficult work.
Anne Webber, a founder of the commission, said that the resale of stolen art to Nazi families was fairly widespread. “They called them a ‘return sale,’” she said wryly. “Why were they returned to them rather than the family from whom they were looted? Nobody knew.”
Mrs. von Schirach’s grandson is also ready to investigate the rightful ownership of his late grandmother’s art. “We need to know about the evil,” he insisted. “That’s the only way we can live with it.”
The painting collection’s archives demonstrate just how far families like the von Schirachs went to keep the art in their possession. The family patriarch, a Nazi governor in Vienna, was put on trial for war crimes in Nuremberg. During his prison stay in Spandau, his relatives put in great efforts for over 10 years to reclaim art, carpets and furniture.
Mrs. von Schirach worked endlessly to get back the mostly German art. By 1957, her brother had recovered 170 pieces of art.
Jonathan Petropoulos, a historian who has studied the postwar Munich art trading, said the Bavarians did not keep their promises to the Americans that they would track down the true owners of the art. “Officials from both governments said they would continue to conduct research, but this scarcely happened, at least, for many decades,” the historian said.
In the Graykowski case, the researchers learned that the painting “View of a Dutch Square” had moved through the official collecting points in postwar Munich where a group gathered stolen art for restitution. In 1962, the state museum sold the piece to Mrs. von Schirach.
The current owner of the Dutch masterwork is the Catholic Cathedral Association of Xanten in Germany. It claimed it bought the Dutch oil painting in 1963, a year after Mrs. von Schirach obtained it at an auction in Cologne for a price that was 50 times the amount she had originally paid for it.
Hans-Wilhelm Barking, the chairman of the cathedral association, said his group is prepared to negotiate a return to the Graykowski family if certain “requirements are met.”
But the two sides are totally stuck over such details as the choice of a mediator and the purportedly prolonged wait by the cathedral association for a notarized list of the Kraus heirs. Graykowski charged that the list had been sent and that the church group was simply procrastinating.
The great-grandson expressed his hope that his family’s story would sway the thinking of private collectors with works of questionable provenance. “Maybe people will feel the moral weight to come forward,” Graykowski mused. “My grandmother was an artist, and her paintings are on the list of stolen works. So someone has my grandmother’s painting in their parlor. I never met her. I wish I had this piece of her.”