Bruno Lohse (inset right) was the art dealer for Hermann Goering (inset left), stealing works like Rembrandt's "Boy with a Red Cap" from Jewish families for the top Nazi's personal collection.
On the days that Hermann Goering was set to arrive at Paris’ Jeu de Paume museum for his private exhibitions, Bruno Lohse made sure that the champagne was always on ice.
Lohse, a 28-year-old Nazi storm trooper with an athletic build and a Ph.D. in art history, was the art dealer for Goering, the second most powerful man in the Third Reich. Brash and ambitious, Lohse had “dazzled” Goering with his knowledge of 17th century Dutch painting at their first meeting on March 3, 1941.
For Goering, Lohse was a refreshing change from the lackeys who usually surrounded him. A bon vivant and womanizer, Lohse once proclaimed himself the “King of Paris.” To the Nazi elite, he was better known as Goering’s personal “art bloodhound,” who satisfied his boss’ insatiable appetite for the world’s greatest treasures, writes Jonathan Petropoulos, author of “Goering’s Man in Paris: The Story of a Nazi Art Plunderer and His World” (Yale University Press), out now.
Goering was an obsessive collector, a lover of Old Masters and northern landscapes, whose lust for art became even more frantic after the Nazis invaded France in the summer of 1940. He had already acquired some of the greatest treasures in Holland, Czechoslovakia and Poland, but France offered the greatest temptations.
Bruno Lohse, a Nazi storm trooper, had a Ph.D. in art history and was the art dealer for Goering, the second most powerful man in the Third Reich.
During the war, Lohse gathered the most valuable paintings that had been stolen from Jewish collectors, and ostentatiously set them before Goering during his visits to the Jeu de Paume, which was used at the time as a warehouse for stolen art.
Although Lohse knew to reserve the most important treasures for Adolf Hitler’s own private collection, Goering also got top picks during his 20 visits to the French museum. Thanks to Lohse, Goering loaded up his private train with Van Gogh’s “Pont de Langlois” in 1941 and scored Rembrandt’s “Boy with a Red Cap” the following year. Both paintings were stolen from the Rothschild banking family, who fled France after the Nazis stormed Paris.
An elite Nazi unit was charged with plundering Jewish homes, seizing the art straight off the walls. But, worried that thugs had no appreciation for art and damaged some of the most valuable works in the process, Lohse regularly volunteered for those violent nighttime sorties. Armed with a letter of introduction from Goering that gave him carte blanche with Nazi officials, Lohse picked out the paintings for his boss while many families were beaten and forced out of their own homes, before finally being shipped to their deaths at Auschwitz.
But, according to Petropoulos, Lohse claimed that the Holocaust never happened. This selective amnesia occurred only after the war, when he was trying to avoid going to jail, writes Petropoulos, who spoke with Lohse numerous times for his book.
Lohse (second from right) leads Goering on a tour of seized loot at the Jeu de Paume museum in Paris.
In 1943, during the height of atrocities, Lohse was “a man without scruples” who had once boasted to a German army officer that he had personally participated in violent acts.
He said he had killed Jews. With his “bare hands.”
Bruno Lohse was born in Duingdorf bei Melle, a 20-house village in northwestern Germany on September 17, 1911. The family — his parents and two siblings — didn’t remain there long, moving to Berlin so that his father, August Lohse, a passionate art collector and musician, could take up a job as a percussionist with the city’s philharmonic.
Along with 30,000 other pieces of stolen Jewish art, Lohse acquired Van Gogh’s “Pont de Langlois” — taken from the Rothschilds.
A towering figure at 6-foot-4-inches tall, Lohse qualified as a gym teacher after graduating high school while also pursuing a degree in art history and philosophy. He took his older brother Siegfried’s lead in joining the Nazi party, in flagrant opposition to their father, a fervent anti-Nazi. Lohse later claimed that he had joined the SS, the Nazi storm troopers, in 1932 “for the sports.” He helped his SS teammates win a national championship in handball in 1935. In that same year, he managed to spend four months in Paris working on his dissertation on Jacob Philipp Hackert, an 18th century German painter known for landscapes.
After completing his Ph.D. in 1936, Lohse began to sell art out of his family home in Berlin, and while he was never counted among the city’s preeminent art dealers, he was able to make a decent living.
When the Nazis invaded Poland in September 1939, Lohse was dispatched to the front lines as a corporal and worked as an ambulance driver in a medical unit. It was a brutal campaign in which the Germans suffered more than 50,000 casualties, and Lohse was eager to leave the fighting and pursue his vocation. When an elite Nazi unit put out an urgent call for art experts to help with their top-secret mission to locate and then catalogue the art they plundered in France, Lohse jumped at the chance.
While Goering and Lohse sipped champagne and chatted about art, French curator and member of the Resistance Rose Valland spied on Lohse’s movements and kept a secret list of all of the art — 30,000 works in total — that the Nazis plundered from France. Goering, meanwhile, had personally amassed 4,263 paintings and other objects in Europe, including masterpieces by Botticelli, Rubens and Monet.
Theodore Rousseau Jr. (left), a member of the Monuments Men, inexplicably became friends with Lohse (not pictured) after the war.
In all, “the Germans had taken one third of the privately owned art in France,” Valland told investigators.
At the end of the war, Lohse was arrested for his ties to the Nazi party and spent several years in prisons in Germany and France. But he was never convicted for his role in stealing art. At Nuremberg, the Allies were more concerned with the high-ranking Nazis who had organized and participated in the mass murder of millions of Jews. Goering was convicted of war crimes, including the plunder of art, and sentenced to hang. He committed suicide in 1946 by swallowing a potassium cyanide capsule that was smuggled into his cell.
In 1950, Lohse was acquitted for looting art, and afterwards settled in Munich where he revived his Nazi art world connections. He continued to buy and sell stolen art and stacked his own private collection with works by Monet, Sisley and Renoir. According to Petropoulos, the art was stored in a Swiss bank vault and on the walls of his modest flat.
“Le Quais Malaquais, Printemps” by Camille Pissarro (above) was stolen by Lohse and recovered after his death, selling for nearly $2 million at auction in NYC.
Not only did Lohse manage to rebuild his career after the war, he extended his shady business dealings to the US. He had no qualms about seeking out Theodore Rousseau, an art curator and deputy director at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, who had interrogated Lohse when he was captured at the end of the war.
Rousseau had been part of the Monuments Men, a US military unit in charge of saving Europe’s art from the Nazis. According to Petropoulos, the two art lovers became fast friends. Although Lohse remained on a United Nations war crimes watch list for most of his life, he traveled frequently to New York in the 1950s and 1960s and stayed at the swanky Hotel St. Moritz on Central Park South and dined with Rousseau at the city’s finest French restaurants. Rousseau also traveled to Munich to see Lohse, and the two frequently retreated to Lohse’s country home, staying up late to drink wine and discuss art, says Petropoulos.
Author Jonathan Petropoulos with Bruno Lohse at their first meeting in Munich, June 1998.
Lohse turned his postwar art career into a profit machine, selling art with suspect provenance through a series of intermediaries, such as his Swiss lawyer Frederic Schoni and the Wildenstein gallery in New York, according to Petropoulos.
“Lohse in the 1950s moved to a new level,” Petropoulos said. “He had been a small fry dealer in Berlin before the war, and now he was offering pictures by the likes of Botticelli and Cezanne. Operating in the shadows was very profitable for him.”
n a testament to the opportunism that marked the art world after the war, Rousseau and Lohse set off on one of their art-dealing excursions around New York City in a Bentley owned by David David-Weill. David-Weill, — the chairman of Lazard Freres, who was part of a French Jewish banking family from whom Lohse had stolen dozens of paintings when he was Goering’s man while in Paris.
Meanwhile, dozens of paintings that Lohse handled likely made their way to New York museums, Petropoulos said. When the author asked the Metropolitan Museum of Art to check their provenance records for Lohse during the course of his research, nothing came up with his name or that of his Swiss lawyer, he said. Many of the archives on Rousseau are closed to researchers and aren’t scheduled to open until 2050, Petropoulos said.
Lohse died in Munich in 2007, at the age of 96. Of the 40 paintings he left behind after his death, only one — “Le Quais Malaquais, Printemps” by Camille Pissarro — has been returned to the heirs of the original owners with the help of Petropoulos. In 2009, the painting was sold at a New York auction for just under $2 million.