During the final months of World War 2 in Europe, and as Allied armies pushed closer and closer to Berlin, the larger, more sinister and horrifying picture of just what the Nazis had been up to was becoming clearer by the hour.
The sickening discoveries of Auschwitz, Birkenau, Belsen, Treblinka and countless other death camps offered ample proof Nazi Germany was the embodiment of evil. That somehow, the concept of inconceivable no longer applied to this twisted and distorted mentality.
And so the discovery that the Nazis had looted millions of pieces of art, priceless treasures and antiquities, not only from the museums of occupied countries, but from the very families doomed to perish in those countless death camps, added one more footnote of disgust to an already overflowing volume of atrocities.
As millions of art treasures were being unearthed in caves, underground bunkers and in warehouses, the bigger picture of what do to with this mass of looted legacies began to emerge.
But in the madness of war and the fog of recollection, difficulties arose as to just who were the rightful owners of many of these stolen items. In some cases, entire families had been wiped out. In other cases, the physical paintings were gone, but paper trails suggesting unscrupulous dealers had sold the looted treasures to art collectors in other countries had surfaced. It was a perplexing, complicated process which demanded a dedicated team of archivists and detectives. And in the last days of the war, so much was going on it was impossible to keep track of such a massive project.
And so much of the looted art went off to museums, slipped into other collections or disappeared altogether – and with the coming Cold War, those who were largely responsible were quietly let go, given slaps on wrists, and the matter of Looted Art was quietly put to rest. At least for a time.
Over the years, steps have been taken to retrieve much of the art, originally looted by the Nazis and either sold to collectors or put in museums, to be given back to the heirs or the surviving members of those families who perished and put the matter to rest, once and for all.
But it has been no easy task – and as years and decades have gone by, the detective work has become more complex, the retrieval process more contentious and the proof of rightful ownership murkier. But it’s being done, and continuing to this day.
Even though public attention to this page of history was brought to light recently by Hollywood in the form of the film Monuments Men, which was a fictional account of the actual events, it has taken the dedicated work of those heirs, the distant relatives of families wiped out in the holocaust, to bring the reality of the situation to public awareness.
One of those people is Simon Goodman, who has undertaken the Herculean task of setting records straight, finding rightful owners, creating awareness.
With his just-published book The Orpheus Clock, currently making the rounds and getting a revival of interest in this chapter of history, Goodman has rekindled the decades long search for the missing art; those pieces which are still missing today.
As was evidenced by the recent discovery of an enormous cache of paintings and other art treasures looted during the Nazi regime, holed up in an apartment in Munich, the story is far from over. And it’s dedication on the parts of detectives/relatives/archivists like Simon Goodman (whose family largely perished during the War), who are keeping this search alive and current.
And of course, somewhat ironic – as the stories we recoil with horror over Nazi-looted Art in the 1930s and 1940s, draw similar comparisons and revulsion to the antiquities in Syria and the Middle East, currently being looted, destroyed or sold to unscrupulous collectors by ISIS. The story never changes and never ends.
Here is an interview with Simon Goodman, recently broadcast by ABC Radio National in Australia as part of the Life Matters program, from August 6th of this year.