The Rape of Europa

This new film, “The Rape of Europa” is just being released in New York this week, and should start to make the art house circuit soon. Metacritic seems to be giving the film good marks so far.

It details the spoliation by the Nazis, and the efforts of allied soldiers known as the monument men to track down the works. The theft was on such a grand scale that the issues are still fresh today. Poland and Germany have engaged in a very bitter dispute in recent weeks. The death of Bruno Lohse revealed he had been storing a looted Pissarro in a Swiss bank vault since the end of the war. The Altmann case and the Klimts are given a prominent role as well.

I am eager to see the film, but just watching this trailer I’m struck by how much more powerful images and music are than the articles I write. I can give an academic view, but seeing the works and the black and white pictures bring the story much more depth and emotion. Whether that produces better cultural policy solutions is questionable I think. Perhaps we are allowing emotion to cloud our judgment in some of these cases?

I haven’t seen the film of course, but we shouldn’t put the blame on Germany alone, though they do rightfully deserve the most criticism. The loss of art and antiquities is an inevitable part of conflict. Russian forces plundered countless works from East Germany, and allied bombs destroyed medieval buildings in Dresden and at Montecassino. An American GI also stole the Quedlinberg treasures, and his family was able to sell them back to the church in the 90’s. In the end, the movie should speak to a fundamental question which still plagues us: what is the value of cultural property? Is it essential to a people’s heritage? Is it worth sacrificing lives or other economic development?

The NY Times has a short overview, as does Lee Rosenbaum.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Be careful what you throw away

Wild story from Earth times:

Vienna – An old cross recovered by an Austrian woman from a garbage container turned out to be an 800-year-old French masterpiece stolen from a Polish collection by the Nazi regime, Austrian police said on Thursday. In 2004, the woman from Zell am See in the province Salzburg got permission from her neighbours to look through a garbage container of things they had thrown out. Among other things, she took an old, gold-coloured cross. As nobody else liked it, the woman kept the gold-plate and enamel cross under her couch until showing it to art experts earlier this year. According to experts from Vienna’s Fine Arts Museum, the piece of garbage turned out to be a passion cross from a manufacturer in Limoges in France made around 1200. Similar pieces fetched up to 400,000 euros (537,000 dollars) at international auctions. Police traced the origin of the cross, showing the piece had been stolen by the Nazi regime from the Polish art collection of Izabella Elzbieta of Czartoryski Dzialinska in 1941. Pieces from the collection were moved from Warsaw to Austria, where the trail ended in 1945. The cross’s fate still remains unclear. The London-based Commission for Looted Art, informed by the Polish authorities, is representing the heirs. The local court in Zell am See decided that for the time being the garbage-treasure was to be kept at the local heritage museum at Leogang, where it could be properly stored.

Pretty cool find. One wonders how much is thrown away that does not get rescued. The case presents some interesting legal issues. I imagine the heirs of the deceased collector would perhaps have a claim. I’m not sure what the relevant limitations period in Austria would be, but it may be that the limitations has expired and the finder would get to retain title.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Catching Up

  • Frank Pasquale of Concurring Opinions talks about how the difference between viewing a digital reproduction on the internet is much less effective than viewing a photograph in person, and perhaps this is a good argument for strong IP protection of works of art.
  • Michael Lewis in Commentary magazine talks about efforts by the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation to compile a stolen art database of works taken from Prussia. Many of them are now in Russia, where they were removed after WWII.
  • Stephen Farrell of the NY Times reports on Baghdad hiring dozens of artists to paint murals on concrete barriers in the city.
  • Bradley Hope of the New York Sun reported on a ceremony to return an ancient Egyptian vessel which appeared in a Christie’s auction last year.
  • David Gill on looting matters compares archaeologists to animal rights activists; one would hope that not too many archaeologists take their ideas too far as some animal rights activists have done.
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Bernard Taper


Last Friday, the San Francisco Chronicle ran an interesting profile of Bernard Taper, one of the so-called Monument Men who worked to recover works stolen by the Nazi’s after WWII. He worked as an art-intelligence officer with the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives section of the U.S. military. I wonder what became of this section. It hasn’t seem to have been involved in any of the major conflicts the U.S. has waged since. Notably the efforts of Matthew Bogdanos in Iraq were on his own initiative because he has a background in Classics. It may be worth examining why this section has disappeared or if it is still functioning. It appears that it was a singular unit charged with repatriation Nazi spoliation. Profiles of these guys are always interesting, and this is no exception. Taper is featured prominently along with some others in the forthcoming documentary titled The rape of Europa. That film is being screened at the San Francisco International Film Festival. For more information click here. Taper has an excellent story to tell as this excerpt shows:

“I was in the Army for three years, and I didn’t fire a shot at anybody and nobody fired a shot at me. That’s the definition of a good war,” the white-haired Taper, sharp at 89, says with a smile. But he did his part to bring forth light, in the form of recovered art, from the darkness of the war.

Born in London and educated at UC Berkeley, Taper was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1943. He served in intelligence and infantry units before being sent back to Berkeley to learn Chinese in preparation for work as a liaison officer assigned to Chaing Kai-Shek’s army in China. But at the last minute, the entire class was sent to Germany, where the war was over.

“It was the Army. Why do you think they invented words like ‘snafu’?” laughs Taper, who was assigned to Patton’s Third Army, then sent to Munich to write intelligence reports. Lunching outdoors one day at an officers’ club, he fell into conversation with a dashing chap named Walter Horn, an Aryan German who abhorred Hitler and left, became a professor of medieval history at UC Berkeley and saw combat action during the war.

“He started telling me marvelous, fascinating stories about what it was like in his job to search for lost and stolen art,” recalls Taper, who had begun contributing to the New Yorker and the Nation while serving in occupied Germany. Horn was desperate to go home, but couldn’t until he found a successor for his art-investigating job. “When he met me he found his successor,” says Taper, who told Horn he wasn’t an art historian and probably wasn’t qualified. Horn said the Monuments section was “lousy with art historians,” but what was needed was somebody who knew how to ask questions. As a budding journalist, Taper fit the bill.

As a further inducement, Horn told him he would have the use of a white BMW roadster, wouldn’t have to wear a uniform, could travel freely without orders and would meet women. “And he said if nothing else, there’s all this art you can look at,” recalls Taper, quick to point out that he got a brown Audi sedan, not the promised BMW. For about six weeks, Taper was in charge of the Army’s art-collecting center at Wiesbaden, which was filled with not only looted art but works from various German civic collections.

“They had fantastic stuff there,” Taper says. “In the office, across the whole back wall, was Watteau’s ‘Embarkation for Cythera,’ and a wonderful Degas, where you look up through the orchestra pit, through the beards of the musicians, at these elegant dancers. It was from the Frankfurt Museum.” As Taper says in the documentary, “Just that office alone was worth the price of admission to World War II.” Outside the door stood a 5,000-year-old stone Nefertiti, which also stopped Taper in his tracks. “I couldn’t just brush by. I had to stop and commune with her.”

Building on the work of previous Monument Men, such as his friend Stewart Leonard, a bomb diffuser who single-handedly removed 22 mines from the Chartres Cathedral and later opened crates containing priceless books and Dürer drawings, Taper tracked down mostly mid-level missing artworks, by painters like the 16th century Dutch artist Mierevelt and his Flemish contemporary Teniers, as well church statuary and other looted objects.

“Probably the best artwork I helped recover was from Göring’s train,” Taper says, abandoned on a rail siding not far from Neuschwanstein Castle, where Allied troops found a huge cache of stolen art. The locals had heard there was schnapps on board, Taper says, and after stealing the schnapps, they took the rest of the stuff, which included late-Gothic wood statutes and a 15th century School of Rogier van der Weyden painting. “Not bad,” says Taper, who had the bright idea of tapping the de-Nazifed German police to help him find stolen goods.

Just a thought, but the stories of these Monument Men and the return of stolen art are quite popular and exciting. I wonder if that popularity and the good will they engender may have some kind of a connection to the generous statutes of limitations rules which have been applied to claimants seeking the return of art stolen from their forebears in recent decades.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

The Monument Men

Today’s New York Times has a piece on a new book financed by retired Texas oilman Robert M. Edsel. The highlight for me are the pictures, published in the new book, which show American GI’s holding up Renaissance masterpieces.
This image shows to soldiers removing a Rembrandt self-portrait from its crate in a salt mine.

The book, called “Rescuing Da Vinci”, tells the story of American and other soldiers, known as the monument men, who recovered works of art looted by the Nazi’s during World War II. Many of these soldiers went on to shape cultural policy in the US after the war. One soldier, Captain James J. Rorimer, went on to become a director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

At the end of the war, a staggering number of works were missing. They had been destined for Hitler’s Fuhrer Museum in Linz, Austria, or on their way to Hermann Goering’s private collection. A number of the works are some I’ve seen on my travels in Europe, including the stained glass from the Strasbourg Cathedral, and Michelangelo’s Bruges Madonna. I had no idea at the time that they had been taken away by invading German forces. The work sounds fascinating, and will surely increase the growing acclaim for what has become known as the greatest generation.

However, not all allied soldiers were quite so altruistic. Soviet forces hauled off a great deal of looted treasures after the war. Also, one American soldier, Joe Meador, took the Quedlinburg Cathedral treasures from a cave they had been hidden in during the war. The Quedlinburg treasures were a collection of gold, silver and bejeweled reliquaries. Meador had been ordered to guard them, but brought them home to Texas instead. His heirs attempted to sell the works around 1990, and federal prosecutors considered bringing a criminal seizure action, but the Meador family agreed to a settlement with the church, and the objects have now been safely returned.

The work sounds very interesting, but we should remember that not all soldiers were quite so charitable as the so-called monument men. Regardless, if the photos in the NYT are any indication, it should be quite an entertaining read.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com