Holocaust, Property Identification

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Holocaust, Property Identification

After Nazi leader Adolf Hitler (18891945) rose to power in Germany in 1933, the Holocaust and, ultimately, World War II began. During this era, the Nazis stole art, other cultural property, and money from Jews and other groups. Hitler took art theft seriously; he sent an advance team into The Netherlands to identify important collections before invading. Many of these stolen works are of major importance and great monetary value. Some were given to Nazi functionaries and others were sold at auction, while many more were stored. After the war ended in 1945, the Allies found more than 2,000 repositories of artworks in Germany and Austria. Efforts at returning property began soon after and continue to this day. Many works of art in museums around the world still need to be restored to their rightful owners or their successors. Art identification experts are helping many initiatives, both national and international, in this work. Similarly, investigations are ongoing into sums of money deposited in bank accounts that may belong to Holocaust survivors and their families.

The International Council of Museums (ICOM) and the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) have been involved in this restoration on behalf of museums around the world. They have encouraged many new initiatives; for instance, in 1998, museums in The Netherlands began an inventory to check the history and identification of all items received between 1940 and 1948. There are also a number of databases listing works of art of dubious origin or works known to be stolen. Such databases may help those in the difficult search for stolen itemswhich could be anywhere in the world, either in a private collection or in a museumparticularly if expert advice is available.

For example, the Museum Provenance List is a compilation of museums that have listed works of art of doubtful origin in their collections. The Art Loss Register is the world's largest private international database of lost and stolen art with a special section for items looted during World War II. Their dedicated team of art specialists check the thousands of missing art works on their database against those offered at art auctions and art dealer fairs; they also check museum collections. As of 2005, they have so far identified 21 missing paintings, including works by Claude Monet, Pierre Bonnard, and Alfred Sisley. Sometimes the detective work involves tracing the rightful owners of a looted painting, rather than locating the work itself. In 2002, the Register, with the help of a museum in the Czech Republic and a journalist in the United States, finally tracked down the descendants of the owner of André Derain's Head of a Young Woman. The painting had been stolen in 1941.

The Commission for Looted Art in Europe helps families, communities, and institutions with the identification and recovery of looted cultural property and works on some 100 cases at any one time. In one example, the commission was approached by the Glanville family for help in recovering a triptych called Three Stages of Life by German artist Count Leopold von Kalckreuth. The artwork had been looted from their home in Vienna in 1938. The work was quickly located in the Neue Pinakothek in Munich. Ten weeks later, the German museum agreed to return it to its rightful owners, who had relocated to London.

Many Jewish families also tried to hide cash from the Nazis by opening up accounts in neutral Switzerland and in Palestine (later, in part, to become the modern state of Israel). The banks involved have made some restitution; for instance, Swiss banks finally made payments of 1.25 billion U.S. dollars to Holocaust survivors and Jewish organizations in 2000, after many years of dispute.

The Nazis were also responsible for one of the biggest thefts ever perpetrated by a government. As they invaded European countries in the late 1930s and early 1940s, they looted central banks for gold to finance their war machine. That gold was then sold to Switzerland and other neutral countries. The Nazis also stole gold, coins, and jewelry from Jews and other victims of their persecution.

One of the more sinister ways the Nazis obtained gold was by removing the fillings from the teeth of their victims in concentration camps. The company that supplied the cyanide for the mass gas exterminations told the Nazis that they could melt down and reprocess the gold fillings into bars. Some of this gold ended up in the German and Swiss banks, but it is difficult for experts to determine, even with the most advanced modern forensic techniques, how much of it comes from concentration camp victims. The matter is under discussion again as of 2005, with the possibility that further reparation may be made to Holocaust survivors.

see also Art identification.