Art of the Heist


The Nazi plunder of Europe — and most particularly, the theft of all things possessed by Jews — has been slowly documented over the last 10 or 15 years, the avariciousness chronicled in all its horrid detail. The plethora of books that have appeared have depicted the wholesale ransacking of Jewish businesses, homes, parcels of land, Swiss bank accounts and insurance policies, right down to the most minute everyday items, like dining-room sets, box springs, mattresses, linens, dishes, cups and spoons. In fact, Götz Aly, one of the most intrepid and creative of the group of historians dealing with such issues, has argued in his important book Hitler's Beneficiaries: Plunder, Racial War and the Nazi Welfare State that "the Holocaust will never properly be understood until it is seen as the most singlehandedly pursued campaign of murderous larceny in modern history."

Early in the scholarly enterprise of cataloguing Nazi plunder, the most potent symbols of German cupidity were the works of art stolen from individuals and families, and especially, those paintings that had never been returned to their rightful owners, some still hanging in the world's great art galleries. In a book like The Lost Museum: The Nazi Conspiracy to Steal the World's Greatest Works of Art, which appeared more than 10 years ago, author Hector Feliciano told in minute detail the story of the looting of the private collections of five Jewish families, all of them important art collectors and dealers in France.

The book dealt with Hitler's obsession with certain types of art; his rivalry over paintings with Herman Goëring, the Fuhrer's heir apparent, who loved fine art, as long as it was free; the involvement of the Paris art market and Swiss officials in the rerouting and selling of stolen paintings; the individuals and nations who profited most from this theft and resale; and just what stolen works were still hanging in French museums 10 years ago.

The author showed conclusively that dozens of French dealers and German brokers learned quickly that there were bargains to be had at the Jeu de Paume, the main repository for stolen paintings in Paris. Because of the Nazi contempt for and ignorance about modern art — what they deemed to be "degenerate" — dealers could bring works they no longer cared for and swap them for a few Picassos, a Matisse, even a lovely little Braque.

Now comes a new book, Reclaimed: Paintings From the Collection of Jacques Goudstikker, published by Yale University Press, that adds a new panel to the overall portrait of Nazi pillage (the volume is tied to an exhibit now at New York's Jewish Museum). The main locale for this sad tale is Amsterdam, but much that occurred in Paris echoes what eventually transpired in the Dutch capital.

In his essay on art dealer Jacques Goudstikker's life and work, Peter C. Sutton, the executive director of the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Conn., which put the current exhibit together, says of the connoisseur that, by all accounts, he was "a larger-than-life figure who helped shape the taste of his age, enlarged the Dutch art market, advanced art history, and lived a prosperous and abundantly joyful life until it was brutally interrupted by the Nazis."

Jacques Goudstikker officially entered his father Edward's business in 1919, and managed to transform it through the 1920s. According to Sutton, Jacques may have continued his father's practice of mounting exhibits of works for sale in numerous Dutch cities, but he also took these shows abroad, even going beyond New York City to Detroit and St. Louis.

And where his father's catalogues had been filled with Dutch paintings, Jacques' catalogues mixed things up, with works from various centuries and countries.

But during the 1930s, the mood in Europe darkened and pleas from friends in Austria forced the art dealer to take action. As Sutton tells it, Goudstikker, his wife and 1-year-old son just made it out of the country, having to leave behind the business and its many masterpieces, which were swept up by the Nazis. On a boat with hundreds of other refugees, the Goudstikkers, who hadn't proper papers, were not permitted to disembark once they got to Dover, England, and were forced to travel on to Liverpool.

That night, unable to sleep, Jacques went up on deck for some fresh air. In the darkness, he fell through an uncovered hatch and was killed. His wife had him buried in Falmouth, and then she and her son continued on to Canada, and from there to America.

Reclaimed is different in one significant sense from The Lost Museum. The latter is conventionally structured and journalistic in approach, with a number of reproductions of the paintings under discussion, offered in black and white at the book's midpoint. Reclaimed is an artbook executed in the grand tradition Yale has set for itself, with half the volume comprised of masteful color reproductions of many of the paintings that have been, as the title states, reclaimed and returned to the Goudstikkers (Jacques' daughter-in-law has contributed some lovely passage in praise of the father-in-law she has only known through family tales, and now through the art he scrupulously collected and sold).

Part of the Master Plan

In addition, the story of Goudstikker's life and death, and the fate of his collection, as well as the fate of the Netherlands at the hands of the Nazis, is told in six essays by some of the foremost scholars in various fields.

For those readers who find all this talk of paintings to be trivial in light of the Nazis' more heinous crimes, one point should be kept in mind: These personal possessions were not the spoils of war; this wide-scale theft was part of the Nazi master plan long before war was ever declared. The Germans envied Jews their influence, and that envy was primarily economic.

So first, they stripped the Jews of their rights, then their jobs and segregated them from society. It may have all been done for the sake of humiliation but it was also done to make seizing their assets less problematical, both legally and logistically. And we must never forget that the war itself, in its length and in its particulars, was subsidized by this bounty.

Another point that Feliciano made in his book was that the looting of cultural property was such a serious priority after the war that "it became one of the indictments against Nazi dignitaries at the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal."

In addition, historian Marc Masurovsky, who's done research on Nazi thefts to assist in the reclamation process, has perfectly summed up what is at stake here.

"It's not just a matter of economics and money," he has said. "A piece of us was taken away. We want recognition of this fact. It's not physical restitution in all cases, but a reckoning. How else are we going to teach our children about what's right and wrong?

"As Jews, art was an extension of our idea of ourselves. And what the [Germans] did was wholesale theft or abetment of theft. … They ripped our guts out culturally. It's about time we asked for something back."

One of the many splendid things about Reclaimed is that it has a happy ending, albeit a limited one. Some of the paintings are together again. Not that the tragedy has been fully dissipated; that would mean that Jacques Goudstikker were back among us and could enjoy the fruits of his labor once more! 


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