2F Book

The Nazis were not unusual in the history of looting except perhaps in their systematic and highly organised approach. Figures are unreliable but certainly hundreds of thousands of items remain
missing, many presumed destroyed, from the plunder of both Germany and occupied Europe. The painting ‘En Canot’ by Jean Metzinger (centre left) has not been seen since it was exhibited at
Munich ‘Entartete Kunst’ in 1937. The Nazis commandeered all manner of buildings to store objects and protect their ‘loot’ from allied bombing, from castles (top left) to caves and salt mines. Dramatised in films such as ‘The Monuments Men’, liberating soldiers emerged from buildings holding priceless works of art (top right).

Whether it’s called looting, plundering or pillaging, the forcible taking of goods has always occurred at times of conflict. The Kohinoor diamond, set in the Queen Mother’s Crown (bottom left), is one of the British monarchy’s most significant Crown Jewels, kept in the Tower of London. Mined in India around the 14th century it was ‘acquired’ in 1850 by the British. It is a subject of intense political disagreement with India, Pakistan, Iran, and Afghanistan and all have at different times demanded its return. There is no compromise in sight, the government insist it has been part of Britain’s heritage for more than 150 years and that the ownership is non-negotiable.

Equally so, the Elgin Marbles (centre right). This priceless collection of architectural sculpture was acquired by Lord Elgin from the Parthenon in Athens around 1800 when the country was under Turkish occupation. Elgin sold them to the British government in 1816 and since then they have been on display at the British Museum in London. The Greeks argue they were taken illegally during the country’s Turkish occupation and should be returned. Contemporary British politicians are divided over this, with some firmly holding the status quo whilst others have vowed to return the Marbles to their ‘rightful owners’. The Great Colonnade of the main avenue of Apamea in Syria (bottom right), one of the world’s largest and best preserved Roman and Byzantine sites, has seen looting since 2009 on a systematic and industrial scale. Recent satellite images show the area scarred by more than 5,000 looting pits. The looting is attributed to all sides in the civil war and the treasure is sold off on a booming black market.

Perhaps the most problematic recent repercussions over looting have been about restitution cases of works of art acquired by the Nazis from Jewish owners. ‘Berlin Street Scene’ 1913 (centre) by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner was owned by the German-Jewish Hess family of Erfurt who remain the main loan owners of the current Leicester German Expressionism collection. Alfred Hess died in 1931. His family, when fleeing from the Nazis in 1933, sent parts of the collection to Switzerland. In 1936 seven paintings were sent back to Cologne for sale. The Kirchner was bought by a Frankfurt collector whose widow later gifted it to a former museum director. In 1980, the Brücke Museum in Berlin acquired the painting for $1.2 million. Anita Halpin, the granddaughter of Alfred Hess, petitioned for its return to the family as its rightful owners and started proceedings. The fundamental issue was, did the Hess family freely sell the painting or was the sale coerced? This lengthy and complex case resulted in the painting being returned. It was then sold at Christies in New York for $38.1 million to New York’s Neue Galerie, where it remains on display.

This restitution case and the sale caused ongoing and often furious debate in Germany. Recent changes mean that German museums must prove that works of art they acquired from 1933-45 were not bought under duress arising from Nazi persecution. This includes items sold by Jews in an effort to support themselves in Nazi Germany. Such documentation can be extremely hard to produce and ultimately as stated by the then German minister of culture on the return of the Kirchner to the Hess family, ‘moral considerations played a significant role in the decision’.