Summary of the book: The Lost Museum
The Lost Museum is a historical book that investigates the looting of the French art by the Nazi regime during the Second World War. According to the book, the Nazi used their officers and soldiers to combed most parts of Europe and looted valuable art collections. The book is organized around official and systemic collections of various private art collections belonging to important families in Europe.
Since his childhood, Hitler had a great thirst for good quality art. However, his attempts to become an artist was thwarted when he failed the admission test for the school of art. Therefore, Hilter opted for politics, but his desire for art never died. The defeat of the French army by the Nazi gave Hitler a rare opportunity to loot some of the things he admired for some time (Hector 11). Due to Hitler’s interest in such art, the looting was conducted in a methodical manner and in overwhelming scale. The Nazi confiscators were well organized in that they had about 60 staff that was properly supported with transport and communication systems (Durney & Blythe 117). Towards the end of the Second World War, France was the biggest victim of looting in Europe. According to Hector, about 30% of the art in the private hands were looted by the Nazis during this time (18). Hitler used the most influential ranks within his administration and gave them orders to steal these arts and bring them to Germany. According to the Author, the Nazi stole more from France than the mere assets. Hector describes that…. “they stole their sole, meaning, and cultural standards of these collectors” (Hector 22).
During the Second World War, the Nazis systematically looted or bought the precious art collections belonging to the wealthy Jews, opponents, of the freemasons (Kracauer 153). The French suffered the worst effects of looting since they host most of the Nazis admirable collection. The Nazis seemed to have a great appreciation of the French cultural and architectural creativity. However, Hitler’s greed could not allow him to watch the French superiority and do nothing about it.
According to Hector, Hitler’s love for French collection was epitomized when he visited Paris in the 1940s. The visit was more like an artistic tour since he visited several places of great art. After the visit was over, Hitler was very impressed and confessed before his friends that it was the dream of his life to see Paris with such wonderful designs. Thereafter, Hitler conceived a plan to redraw renovate Berlin and make it more beautiful than Paris. He confessed “Berlin must be made more beautiful than Paris…… When we are finished with Berlin, Paris will be shut down”. These words from Hitler demonstrate that he wanted to use the creativity of Paris to upgrade Berlin, and then destroy Paris. According to Hector, Hitler was not the kind of men who liked competition.
Louvre museum was one of the renowned art collections in France that was admired by the Nazi (Adler 66). According to Hector, the Louvre museum housed only manual of astronomy that was greatly admired in the whole Europe (24). Hitler also managed to loot one of valuable paintings from the Rothschild family. Most of the loot were stockpiled in the basement of Hitler’s headquarters in Berlin. The other families that were targeted by Hitler’s lootings were the Rosenberg, Bernheim-Jeune, Schloss, and David-Weill.
Hitler chose personal assistant was entrusted with the responsibility of overseeing the loot. In 1940, he advised Hitler that it is necessary to acquire the arts from Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Rubens for they would complete their art collections in Berlin (Hector 31). Such advice informed their seizer of Vermeer’s Astronomer, which brought lots of joy to Hitler. One of Hitler’s advisers advocated for signing an official treaty with Paris so that the Nazis could take some of the Louvre’s best works as war reparations. However, this never materialized.
In 1940, a plan was conceived that the highest Nazi top management level to compile and exhaustive list of German art held in other countries. During this period, Hitler’s strategy of conquering the world seemed eminent since he had already overwhelmed several countries. This report by Kummel advocated for return of Nazi art held in countries from the Soviet Union to the United States from 1500s to 1930s (Hector 35). The Kummel Report the artistic works of paintings, sculptures, porcelain, medieval armor, military flags, coins, and medals. To them Nazis, the artistic works were to be returned to Germany, whether they were acquired legally or illegally. Therefore, the first Nazi reclamation was made towards the French, the leading Nazi enemy. According to Hector, the French had more than 1,800 works strongly demanded by the Germans (36). Some of them were found in the public places or museums. During the German conquest, no French museum, whether in rural or urban, private or public escaped scrutiny. Coincidentally, Napoleon had filled the Louvre Museum will loots from German, Italy and Egypt and this made it easy for the Nazi to trace and loot them.
Eventually, the Germans cultural reappropriation most succeeded in Eastern Europe. However, their strategy in Western Europe seemed different as they only targeted specific populations such as the Jews, the Freemasons, and the political opponents (Torrie 43). Therefore, their Nazi conquest in Western Europe was more focused on individuals as opposed to mass recovery witnessed in Eastern Europe.
The body that was entrusted with the responsibility of looting the world art was named the ERR. The body was charged with the seizure of libraries and archives in all countries conquered by the Germans (Hector 55). The German ministry of foreign affairs gave orders that all the Jewish and personal artifacts collected during the conquest will be put into safekeeping under the supervision of the German embassy. Such orders gave the Germans the opportunity to seize the previous arts from other countries and transport them to Germany. During this time, a good number of Jewish art collections were with the French who were responsible for protecting them. However, such protection was not guaranteed since the Germans overpowered the French.
According to Hector, the most prized artistic collection that the Germans admired were from the Rothschild family (45). From the beginning of the 19th century, the Rothschild made an aristocratic dynasty, had prestigious possessions, and made powerful connections. Hector describes that the Rothschild family was in possession of more than 5,000 collections of art. By the early 1941, the Nazi regime was successful in seizing most of the properties owned by the Rothschild (Reynolds et al 283). These holdings were packed in crates and sent to Germany. In the final Rothschild looting, only the few furniture and clock that were hidden in the farm equipment building were saved. By the end of 1941, most of the Rothschild collections were resting in a warehouse in Paris. Surprisingly, most of the Rothschild was recovered during the 1944 American bombings and were safely brought back to France.
The other large group of artistic collections was owned by a man named Rosenberg. However, most of his possessions were also taken by the Germans when he fled away and went to the New World. He could not understand where and why they were taken. He did not realize that the plan to confiscate his property was hatched by the top level Nazi authority.
In the 1930s, the Napoleon III built the Museum of contemporary schools known as the Jeu de Paume. According to Hector, it was meant to showcase the foreign modern paintings and sculpture (105). The traditional works were put on the first floor while the foreign modern pieces of art were placed on the second floor. In 1937, its management organized for an important art exhibition. This exhibition did not go well with the Nazi as most of the painters who were being looked down upon by the Germans were being glorified in this event. However, the second exhibition that was organized on the same place later in the year caught the attention of the Germans since it involved some top American artists.
Some of the works that were on display at the Jeu de Paume were looted from the Rosenberg collection. One of the most powerful visitors to go to this exhibition was a Nazi by the name Goering. On the same note, other dozens of French and Nazi brokers visited the exhibitions since they realized the potential profits that could be made in this house that stored stolen goods. The other prominent person in this house was a Nazi by the name Rochlitz. He was initially arrested by the French, but later released upon the German conquest of France. Upon his release, he saw the huge potential in the art business and established a close working relationship with the ERR. During this relationship, the disposed a number of paintings and other collections in the Paris market. He was more comfortable with the bartering system where he took advantage of the Nazi contempt and ignorance concerning modern or degenerate art.
The Germans were not the only beneficiaries of the looted works displayed at the Jeu de Paume. According to Hector, there were also some plenty opportunistic French who also took advantage of the Nazi looting to enrich themselves. For example, Dequoy is mentioned in this book as a French national who benefited from the Nazi looting. Before the war, he had already established several links with the Nazi brokers and this gave him a negotiating advantage during the museum conquest.
The looting by the Nazi led to the massive depletion of French art. Most of these pieces of art were taken to Germany and the watchful eyes of the Nazis (Poole 130). The sale of these items at Jeu de Paume also enabled these works to be scattered in other parts of the word such as Italy and the United states. The other effect was that looting by the Germans made the Parisian market to be filled by the stolen property.
In order to stay informed of the Nazi looting, the French museum administration began to make inventories of every single piece of art that has been looted by the Nazi. This was done at two levels. The Museums inventories were taken at the museums that had been raided and looted by the Germans. Also, the French began to copy the Nazi confiscation inventories and photo archives to help track the destination of the looted pieces of art. In Germany, there was a group of workers who were busy cataloguing and evaluating the looted arts. Given the large numbers of the looted pieces of art, their volumes were enormous and this required a high degree of efficiency. The looted arts were sent to several places before going to Jeu de Paume, where a kind of triage was performed.
Interestingly, the Paris art market was not negatively affected by the war. Instead, the activities within the Paris market flourished as more buyers were attracted to the market. Also, the prices for the French art rose further than it was before the war. According to Hector, the war provided a great opportunity for the Paris art market (122). First, the war brought an end to the depression of the 1930s that led to the reduction of art prizes. This forced a good number of Paris art businesses to close their shops due to a 70% reduction in earnings. Therefore, many new people started investing in the art market. However, the Paris art market lots of its foreign clients during the war as most of them were replaced by the Germans.
The repulsion of the Jews from the Paris art market also came with huge impact. Initially, the Jew played an important role in the Paris art market as they were respected for their judgment and experience. Their exit from the Paris market led to lack of experts to advise the market brokers and to link them with a worldwide network of wealthy clients. During the war, Switzerland closed its eyes and took a neutral ground to the warring sides. Through its funny laws, Switzerland facilitated art trafficking and offered a refuge for the sellers and the buyers of the looted art.
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