Before the outbreak of World War I, Adolf Hitler was a practicing artist. On two separate occasions, Hitler was denied admission to the Academy for Art Studies in Vienna. He took art very seriously and during his 12-year reign as German Führer, the international art industry was demolished. It has been estimated that Hitler stole over 750,000 artworks during the war. The years between 1933 and 1945 are a black hole in the art community, with thousands of pieces of art changing hands and going missing.
During World War II, the Nazis went on a rampage destroying and stealing European art. Priceless pieces of art were auctioned off at extremely low prices. This has created a major problem in the art community that remains evident today. People purchased stolen art and the victim’s families want their possessions back. In many cases, proving the legal rights to a piece of art is a difficult and time consuming process. This article will be examining 10 famous pieces of art that were stolen by the Nazis.
Editors Note: This article was written in July 2010, but we have republished it with the release of Monument Men and the interest that movie has drawn to the theft of art by the Nazis.
Saint Justa and Saint Rufina
Bartolomé Esteban Murillo is one of the most important Spanish painters in history. He was alive during the 17th century and is a cherished painter of the Baroque period of art. Murillo is probably best known for his religious works, but also painted many portraits of everyday life. In 1943, the Allied armies formed a coalition of men whose goal was to assist in the protection of valuable art and national monuments. The group became known as the Monuments Men. The Monuments Men were vital in the process of gathering stolen art and returning it to the rightful owner. As the Allied Forces liberated Nazi-occupied territories, Monuments Men were present at the front lines. In Germany alone, U.S forces found approximately 1,500 repositories of art and cultural objects, with hundreds-of-thousands of artifacts. Some of the most identifiable pieces of art were immediately returned to their rightful owners. However, thousands of artifacts were never claimed or stolen.
Monument Men organizations still exist today, with the goal of tracking down and returning stolen art. Recently, a member of the organization stumbled upon an old picture taken during World War II. It showed a photo of Murillos famous pair of paintings titled Saint Justa and Saint Rufina. Immediately the connection was made with the Meadows Museum in Dallas, which houses the paintings. The Meadows Museum holds one of the largest collections of Spanish art outside of Spain, with masterpieces by some of the world’s greatest painters. After some intense research, it was confirmed that the museum had the two painting and they were in fact stolen by the Nazis during World War II.
This was accomplished by examining the back of the picture frames, which contained a number R1171. This number is consistent with art stolen by Germany and stands for Rothschild, 1171, which is the 1,171st object stolen from the Rothschilds. The Rothschild family was looted in France, 1941. Like all stolen art, a major legal battle has pursued, as the Meadows Museum legally purchased the portraits at an auction, but the paintings whereabouts before the auction are confusing. The two portraits are estimated to be worth more than $10 million.