Berlin – It was one of the biggest thefts in history – the forced transfer of Jewish-owned businesses, homes and art collections to German “Aryan” ownership.
Long before the Kristallnacht pogrom of November 9, 1938, the Nazis systemically began seizing possessions of Jews living in Germany, under an official policy known as Aryanization.
After the start of World War II in September 1939, the Germans continued the looting in Eastern Europe, helped by a huge apparatus which administered the stolen items.
The main beneficiaries were the Nazis themselves, their supporters, art dealers and museums.
Some of the looted works were returned to their rightful owners after the war ended. But decades later, the whereabouts of many missing works of art are still unknown.
Experts believe many paintings and sculptures that once belonged to Jews are still kept in private collections and by museums.
Tens of thousands of people in Hitler’s Germany enriched themselves from the thefts as different Nazi organizations argued over dividing the spoils.
Some of the objects were readied for display at the “Fuehrer Museum” in the Austrian city of Linz, while Nazi bigwigs gave others to Hitler as gifts.
Part of the booty was sold on the international art market, mainly in Switzerland, to help the Nazis replenish their chronically short supply of foreign currency.
In addition to looting Jewish works of art, the Nazis persecuted their owners, blackmailed them and eventually murdered them.
From the mid-1800s, Jews living in Germany began collecting cultural works and patronizing the arts in a bid to gain acceptance in society after centuries of discrimination.
By robbing them of their artistic possessions the Nazis sought to destroy the Jewish identity. If works were not stolen outright, their owners were forced to sell them at a fraction of their true market value.
After the war, reparations and the return of Jewish art to their rightful owners only came about slowly, mainly because many of those who bought such works believed they had paid a fair price for them.
This line of reasoning was designed “to play down the role of German society and shift the blame to the state, the (Nazi) party and its criminal henchmen,” according to historian Constantin Goschler.
Systematic attempts were made to disguise the original of looted paintings, among them Lovis Corinth’s 1914 work Roman Countryside, whose provenance is documented in an exhibition at the Jewish Museum in Berlin.
The painting once belonged to Curt Glaser, director of the state-owned library of Art in Berlin until 1933 when he was required to quit because of his Jewish background.
He was evicted from his official apartment and forced to sell his art collection in order to pay for his emigration to the United States, where he planned to start a new life.
The painting resurfaced in 1945 in the possession of Berlin property dealer Conrad Doebbeke, who amassed 300 works by German artists, most of them bought from Jews.
It was among a collection of 100 paintings, drawings and sculptures purchased by a museum in the city of Hanover in 1949 for 164,000 marks.
Glaser’s second wife, who lived in the United States, claimed she was the rightful heir to the painting but agreed to drop the demand in return for 5,000 marks in compensation.
Subsequent attempts to recover it failed because the time limit for restitution had expired under German law.
After the Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets endorsed a set of principles for dealing with Nazi-looted art in 1998, the family reached a deal with the museum in Hanover for a return of the painting in 2003. (dpa)