De kattebelletjes van Hotel M├ętropole - The scribblings from the Hotel M├ętropole

De Standaard 1 December 2022
By Geert Sels

To read the article as published in Dutch, please click here for p.1 and here for p.2.

English translation

In October 1940, Hermann Göring took a few days off from the front to come to Brussels. At the Hotel Métropole, he bought 9 paintings. We found 5 of them in the Netherlands and Germany.

Hermann Göring, a solid second in the Nazi hierarchy and self-proclaimed Renaissance man, did not waste any time expanding his art collection after the occupation of the Low Countries. By June 1940, he was already on the steps of Galerie Goudstikker in Amsterdam. He was in the company of his art buyer Walter Andreas Hofer. If you saw Hofer, witnesses later declared, you knew Göring would make his appearance not so much later. By September 1940, Göring already had his eye on a large Belgian collection.

How did Göring know where there were bargains somewhere? Surely he didn't know the local art market at all? For that, he adjusted his compass to Hofer. The latter had lived in The Hague for several years in the 1920s and had run the Galerie Bachstitz there. Presumably, he came into contact along those lines with another German who had settled in the Netherlands: Walter Paech. The latter had excellent introductions to the Belgian market. He bought at auctions at the Palace of Fine Arts and knew the galleries that mattered.

This became clear when I went through Paech's file in the Hague archives. Leafing among typed-out reports and interrogations, I suddenly stumbled on some small handwritten leaves. These, judging by the torn edges, had apparently been pulled out of a pocketbook in a hurry. On them were scribbled names of Brussels art dealers. Could I do anything with that? The file also contained loose scribbled notes on stationery from the Hotel Métropole in Brussels. What did these mean?

I found the answer to my question three years later at the State Archives in Brussels. There, in a file, I found black facsimile leaves in mirror writing. In the toilets, I could decipher the letterhead in the mirror: Hotel Métropole. I found more of those pocketbook leaves and scribbled notes on stationery - some of which I recognised from The Hague. But what on earth were they about?

I found a first clue in a post-war report by US lieutenant Theodore Rousseau. He was one of the prominent Monuments Men who went to track down looted art in conquered Germany. Back in September 1945, he delivered a 176-page report on Göring's art collection. For each country, he went over the people involved. His brief profile of Walter Paech mentioned that the paintings bought through Paech in Belgium 'were all offered to Göring at the Hotel Métropole'. So, hence that stationery.

Saving Hachje

I found another clue in a statement by Walter Andreas Hofer. The latter had decided to save his own skin after the war and was keen to tell where the pieces from Göring's collection came from. When questioned by a Belgian Monuments Man in Munich in late 1946, he explained more about 'The Entombment of Christ' by Colijn de Coter, one of the Flemish primitives. Hofer explained that Paech had set up a presentation with paintings he had on commission from Belgian antique dealers. 'Cela se passait à l'Hotel Métropole,' he concluded.

I could have hugged Hofer posthumously for this statement. It matched the pocketbook leaves perfectly. At the top of one of those leaves was 'Colijn de Coter' and then 'Fl 12,000' and 'M 16,000'. It looked like Paech had converted prices from florins (guilders) to marks for his German customers. Everything was already in place for a prosperous sale.

Cooperation with Belgian antique dealers also proved to be true. In the Hague archives, I found a receipt in which Paech confirmed that he had received twelve paintings from Belgian art dealer Arthur De Heuvel for safekeeping for the duration of one week. In the event of an agreement, Paech would receive 10% commission on the sale price. The receipt was dated 17 October 1940.

During the same interrogation in Munich, Hofer recalled that Göring had effectively bought the Colijn de Coter painting. That is true and it did not stop at that one painting. In the archives in The Hague, I found an invoice dated 29 October 1940 - so that time neatly ties in with the sales exhibition at the Hotel Métropole. On that invoice, Paech charged 'Seine Excellenz Herrn Reichsmarschall H. Göring' 88,880 Reichmarks for nine paintings, four gobelins and four sculptures. For that price, Göring secured two paintings by Jacob Grimmer, two by Joos de Momper, and further works by Frans Francken, Hans Rottenhammer, Sebastian Vrancx and the Master of the Legend of St. Lucy.

Göring was avid for the new and an unfaithful collector. If he was fed up with works of art, he got rid of them without much heartache. If he could improve his collection by exchanging some pieces for others, he did not hesitate. During his interrogation, Hofer further explained that Göring had exchanged his Colijn de Coter with the Amsterdam Galerie Goudstikker, which was meanwhile owned by Aryan business manager Alois Miedl. 'It might be in the Netherlands,' Hofer said of the painting.

Hitler's collection

That was a valuable suggestion by Hofer, but it had been superseded by time. And also by Alois Miedl, who had sold the painting on to the Hamburger Kunsthalle. There, after the war, it was recovered by the Allies and returned to the Netherlands, having ended up in Nazi Germany via there. The painting is in Dutch government ownership and has been entrusted to the Bonnefantenmuseum in Maastricht.

It is not the only painting from the Métropole sale that is still in Dutch government possession after all these years. There are three others. The painting by Jacob Grimmer, listed in Paech's notebook as 'Grimmer small', is 'Landscape with castle and partying company'. It is now considered a work by an unknown master and has been entrusted to the Limburg Museum.

The small painting 'Couple at Table in Landscape' by Frans Francken II, has had a remarkable trajectory. It entered Göring's collection, but when the latter grew tired of it, he dropped it at Galerie Goudstikker/Miedl. From there, it ended up in Hitler's Linz collection not much later. Apparently, the shortest route from Göring to Hitler was via the Netherlands. After the war, the work returned to the Netherlands. Today, it brightens up the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in Dublin.

On his invoice, Paech described the fourth painting as "folk scene and procession in a landscape from the Brueghel area". That is a description that matches wonderfully with 'Landscape with bearing of the cross' by Lucas Gassel. That too was a painting Göring put on sale at Galerie Goudstikker/Miedl. From there, it found its way to an owner in Bad Kissingen. After the war, it came into Dutch government ownership - it now hangs in Helmond's Gemeentemuseum.

Already during the war years, in 1943, the Allies agreed in the Declaration of London that all transactions with the Nazi occupiers were considered non-existent. As a result, both looted and bought art could be claimed back from Germany. Based on that declaration, the paintings from the Métropole sale should have been returned to Belgium. So why didn't that happen? Because the Allies' post-war restitution policy contained a systemic flaw. They applied the rigid rule that art found in Germany had to be returned to the country through which it entered Germany. Since Paech was operating from Amsterdam, that was the Netherlands. The next step, transit to Belgium, was no longer taken.

From the Métropole sale, not only art ended up in the Netherlands. The 'Madonna' of the Master of the Legend of St. Lucy stuck around in Germany after the war. The American Monuments Men handed her over to the German government in 1949, with the condition that they would investigate the painting's provenance. It does not look as if any startling research has been done in all those years. The work has been transferred to the collection of the Stadtmuseum Simeonstift in Trier.

Who knows, maybe we could give the German government a hand with its work. Where did the Madonna come from? I found that answer in the archives in The Hague, in a court file that examined Paech's collaboration with the German occupier. In his interrogation, Paech said that after the Métropole sale in 1940, he had gone to Brussels 'several more times', always 'in the presence of Hofer and Göring'. Among the works he had bought there, he mentioned the 'Madonna' of the Master of the Legend of St. Lucy. 'These purchases were made at the art dealers Manteau and De Heuvel, based in Brussels,' he said about it. Now that Germany knows the painting came from Brussels, will it cede the work to Belgium?

The paintings that ended up in the Netherlands can be compared to an order delivered by a parcel delivery service to the neighbours. The parcels that the Monuments Men sent back from German art depots after the war have now been with their neighbours for more than 75 years. In all that time, Belgium has not gone ringing the doorbell to collect its parcels. Conversely, the neighbours did not bring them to Belgium either. However, there was little heroism in taking delivery of a wrong order.

Reaction to the articles by Geert Sels

'Time to shift up a gear'

Flemish Culture Minister Jan Jambon (N-VA) is not reacting for now to the news that the relatives of Jewish families are reclaiming art from Belgian museums (DS 29/11).

His federal colleague for science policy Thomas Dermine (PS) is. He thinks the claims should be thoroughly investigated and "if they are unlawful possession, the appropriate consequences should be attached to them".

Dermine understands art institutions sometimes have very large collections. 'Many pieces have often been acquired throughout history in unclear circumstances. Today we are asking more questions about this. We take any ambiguity about the origin of our cultural heritage seriously. It is time to shift up a gear," Dermine said.

In connection with this, he announced two initiatives yesterday at the Kunst voor das Reich book launch. He supports a project by the universities TU Berlin and ULB and the State Archives. These are working with the Museum of Fine Arts of Brussels to develop a methodology for provenance research in the museum's art collection.

Dermine is also setting up a centre of expertise for provenance research. Its mission is to actively search for the provenance of works of art. This applies to both colonial looted art and Nazi looted art. The centre will be housed in the Royal Institute for Art Heritage (KIK-IRPA).

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