The night before American forces marched into Munich, a mob of civilians broke into the Führerbau—a Nazi party building—and started looting everything they could find. By the end of the following day, April 30, 1945, they had seized huge amounts of liquor, furnishings ranging from toilet bowls to a complete set of Meissen porcelain, and, significantly, some 700 stolen paintings intended to grace the walls of Adolf Hitler’s planned “Führermuseum.”
“It was a moment of incongruity,” Catherine Hickley writes in the New York Times. “Hitler, the man who turned the illegal seizure of art into a national trade, had his own plunder”—much of it confiscated from Jewish collectors over the course of the war—“ransacked.”
In the weeks and years that followed, authorities recovered about 300 of the 700 twice-stolen works of art. But as Hickley reports, attempts to locate the remaining 400 paintings have since stalled, with investigators instead focusing their efforts on the return of more notorious Nazi-looted artifacts—among others, the roughly 1,500 masterpieces constituting the so-called Gurlitt trove.
Now, a multi-year research project conducted by Munich’s Central Institute for Art History is poised to bring the Führerbau thefts back into the spotlight, paving the way for the eventual restitution of such paintings as Pieter Bruegel’s “Christ and the Adulteress,” Frans Hals’ portrait of theologian Michiel Jansz van Middelhoven, and Pieter de Hooch’s “The Woman With the Parrot.”
According to the project portal, researchers set out to reconstruct the Führerbau’s inventory at the time of the ransacking, determine which works were stolen, look into the whereabouts of missing items and publicize the list of paintings yet to be found. A summary of the team’s findings, as well as lists of still-missing or still-to-be restituted and recovered works, is available online.
Per the New York Times, the investigation has led the German government to belatedly report hundreds of missing artworks to Interpol and the German Federal Criminal Police Office. Authorities are also listing the paintings on two prominent databases: the Art Loss Register and lostart.de. As the Führerbau project summary states, experts hope this uptick in publicity will encourage museums and art dealers to examine their holdings for any of the looted works.
“These works surface sporadically at auction,” Stephen Klingen, an art historian involved in the research project, tells Hickley. “We think it is important to raise awareness of their history and develop a policy for dealing with them instead of starting from scratch each time one emerges. The legal environment is not favorable for restitution to the heirs of the original owners.”
A major obstacle to successful restitution is Ersitzung, a principle of German law that identifies an individual who acquires an item in good faith and possesses it for 10 years as the rightful owner. In 2009, a Frans Francken the Younger painting stolen from the Führerbau suddenly resurfaced, but as Klingen says, the court was unable to determine whether it had been seized from a Jewish collector and therefore returned the canvas to the descendants of the last known owner, a German army barracks caretaker. Per the standards outlined by Ersitzung, the man’s heirs, unaware of the painting’s shadowy provenance, had simply acquired the work through good-faith inheritance. A similar case arose in 2017, when a portrait by Franz von Stuck was sold to a private collector after researchers found no evidence the painting had been looted from a Jewish collector. It’s an obstacle that Hickley reports is expected to come up more as missing Führerbau paintings continues to surface.
To date, the Munich institute’s investigation has yielded evidence of around three dozen works of art. Still, a significant number of the 1,500 or so housed in Nazi offices at the time of the looting—including hundreds originally belonging to the family of Adolphe Schloss, a French Jew who acquired a sizable collection of Dutch and Flemish Old Master works—remain under the radar, destroyed or lingering unnoticed in private collections. Of the several hundred works that escaped the mobs and were subsequently found by invading Allied forces, just 54 have been restituted to the descendants of their original Jewish owners. The rest remain in limbo under the official purview of the German government.