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The Art of Provenance: What Happened After Hitler’s WWII Art Heist

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black and white portrait of Adolf Hitler.

Hosted by writer Emma Atkinson, RadioEd is a triweekly podcast created by the DU Newsroom that taps into the University of Denver’s deep pool of bright brains to explore the most compelling and interesting research coming out of DU. See below for a transcript of this episode.

Show Notes

The Manhattan District Attorney’s Office says the Art Institute of Chicago demonstrated “willful blindness” when it purchased “Russian War Prisoner,” a drawing by Austrian artist Egon Schiele. The museum insists it came by the piece legally.  

Why all the drama? Well, the drawing was stolen by the Nazis during World War II.  

We’ll let the courts decide what happens in Chicago. But right here in Colorado, University of Denver professor of history Elizabeth Campbell is leading a national conversation about what happened to art looted by the Nazis in World War II—and why the rehoming, or restitution, process isn’t as straightforward as it might seem. 

Elizabeth Campbell is a history professor at the University of Denver. She also serves as director of the Center for Art Collection Ethics (ACE). Campbell

Headshot of Professor Elizabeth Campbell

teaches courses in modern European and French history, including the French Revolution, Europe during the World Wars, Nazi art looting and seminars on the history and memory of World War II in France and the Algerian war of independence.  
Her latest book, “Museum Worthy: Nazi-Era Art in Postwar Western Europe,” focuses on the Allied recovery of plundered art, comparing restitution practices in France, Belgium and the Netherlands. In all three cases, postwar governments held unclaimed works for display in state-run museums, setting the stage for controversy and litigation in the 1990s and ongoing cultural property disputes. (Oxford University Press, forthcoming) 
In the spring of 2017, Campbell began developing plans for ACE in consultation with DU faculty and staff in related programs. ACE promotes ethical art collection stewardship through social media and on-campus training programs. 

More Information: 

"Museum Worthy: Nazi-Era Art in Postwar Western Europe” by Elizabeth Campbell 

Art Institute showed ‘willful blindness’ in buying Nazi-looted art, New York prosecutors say” Chicago Sun-Times 

Russian War Prisoner” Art Institute of Chicago 

An Art Critic’s Secret Critique Of Hitler’s Paintings Shown Uncanny Insight” History Daily 

Center for Art Collection Ethics  

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Emma Atkinson (00:05): 

You're listening to RadioEd, the University of Denver podcast. I’m your host, Emma Atkinson. 

If you were to visit the Art Institute of Chicago, you’d be able to see many works of fine art—the museum counts Vincent van Gogh, Henri Matisse and Edward Hopper among the artists whose work it showcases. 

You’d also be able to lay eyes on a piece titled “Russian War Prisoner,” a watercolor and graphite drawing by Austrian artist Egon Schiele from the year 1916. It’s a portrait of a seated young man wearing an army green officer’s cap, his jacket pinned with military accolades. Thanks to the delicate touch of watercolors, it’s obvious that his left hand and face are mottled with black and blue bruises, his eyes carefully appraising as he peers up from below the brim of his cap.  

It’s a striking piece that tells the tale of the strife of World War I. And authorities are alleging that the Chicago Art Institute’s right to hold the drawing is legally dubious, thanks to something that happened during the next World War.  

New York prosecutors argue that “Russian War Prisoner” was stolen from its legal owner, Austrian cabaret performer Fritz Grünbaum, by the Nazis in 1938.  

They allege that the Nazis seized the drawing and many other works of fine art before sending Grünbaum to the Dachau concentration camp, where he died in 1941.  

The Manhattan District Attorney’s Office says it has the authority to repossess U.S.-based art that it finds to have been looted by the Nazis because the artworks were sold in New York City after coming over from Europe.  

The Manhattan DA says the Art Institute demonstrated, quote, “willful blindness” when it purchased Schiele’s drawing. The museum insists it came by the piece legally.  

We’ll let the courts decide what happens in Chicago. But right here in Colorado, a University of Denver professor is leading a national conversation about what happened to art looted by the Nazis in World War II—and why the rehoming, or restitution, process isn’t as straightforward as it might seem. 

Elizabeth Campbell (02:03): 

Thousands of pieces were not returned to rightful owners, and many of them had been Jewish, and victims of antisemitic persecution.  

Emma Atkinson (02:11): 

That’s Elizabeth Campbell, DU professor of history and director of the University’s Center for Art Collection Ethics. She’s made a career out of the study of modern European history and art history, and most recently has focused on the theft of fine art by the Nazis.  

Campbell’s latest book, “Museum Worthy: Nazi-Era Art in Postwar Western Europe,” focuses on the recovery of that stolen art and examines restitution practices in several European countries. 

Elizabeth Campbell (02:37): 

I think it's really important to know that this is not merely a story about objects, because for the descendants of the victims of the Holocaust and antisemitic persecution, this is about restoring justice, and the restitution of works of art can be a form of social justice when it's warranted. And through provenance research, or ownership research, that we're able to find who the likely rightful owners are. And so in the end, it is about people. And so it's a very important way that there can still be belated justice for descendants of Holocaust victims. 

Emma Atkinson (03:21): 

Campbell begins her book with the story of Fritz and Louise Gutmann, a married couple of German Jewish descent living in the Netherlands. The family had converted to Protestantism and were widely known as prominent art collectors, holding both wealth and power in the art world. Because of this, when the Germans invaded the Netherlands in May of 1940, the Gutmanns didn’t feel threatened by the Nazis. 

Elizabeth Campbell (03:44): 

They made a decision not to try to flee. They certainly had immense wealth and would have been among those that perhaps could have had enough wealth and influence to flee, but they didn't. And I think they just did not feel vulnerable because they were such prominent members of society. Well, in the end, they were vulnerable because they were ethnically Jewish.  

Emma Atkinson (04:07): 

And their Protestant religious practices didn’t matter to the Nazis. 

The Nazis and their Dutch collaborators began their mission to steal the Gutmanns’ art through manipulation methods, as directed by Adolph Hitler.  

Elizabeth Campbell (04:18): 

His agents used methods of coercion, for example, stopping by the family home, asking to speak to Fritz, and, of course, would be invited inside - you wouldn't want to be rude to prominent art dealer that is working for Hitler. And the art dealer would walk around the home—I'm thinking in particular here of Carl Haverstock—and just gaze at all the items in the house, it was like a mini museum in their beautiful home, and would say, you know, the Fuhrer is very interested in these items. And it's almost a mafia type of mentality that if you are willing to sell items to us, we can help protect you. And so Fritz did decide to sell some of those items. And I've seen the records in the archives that have a list of items, the prices and his signature. 

Emma Atkinson (05:15): 

While Fritz Gutmann technically did sign away the rights to much of his precious art, many historians and legal experts now consider those transactions legally void. 

Elizabeth Campbell (05:24): 

So for decades, those were considered valid sales, which complicated restitution, and often they still do in cases to this day. But now we know that that is a clear example of duress. 

Emma Atkinson (05:37): 

Tragically, the Gutmanns were tricked into leaving their home and sent to different concentration camps, where they were both killed by the Nazis. 

Elizabeth Campbell (05:44): 

So then the Nazis entered the home took all other remaining possessions of value, seized the property so they lost all the remaining assets. So it's a very dramatic example of what happened. 

Emma Atkinson (05:57): 

As Campbell says, the Gutmanns are just one example of what befell so many families, Jewish families in particular, during the war. But where did this emphasis on art come from? Why not just seize assets like property?  

The story begins with Hitler himself. 

Elizabeth Campbell (06:13): 

As you might know, he saw himself as an art connoisseur. He had quite famously tried to be admitted to the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna – was rejected twice. We can find examples of his artwork through a simple internet search. And when you see his works, you understand why he was rejected from the Academy.  

Emma Atkinson (06:33): 

In 2002, author Frederic Spotts asked an art critic to evaluate some of Hitler’s paintings without identifying Hitler as the artist. The critic stated that Hitler’s depiction of human subjects, quote, “displayed disinterest in the human race.” Perhaps that’s why the Academy passed on his application. 

Elizabeth Campbell (06:51): 

That was a rejection that he greatly resented. And he blamed members of the art community who are Jewish at the time. He used them as scapegoats to help to explain why he wasn't accepted to the academy, but he always saw himself as an art connoisseur. And so he wanted to build this vast Museum in Linz, Austria, and it would have been part of a enormous cultural complex with a library and the symphony hall, but really, the crown jewel of that complex would have been the Führermuseum. And so he recruited the top German curators at the time and art dealers, they started to amass works of art first within the Third Reich, and then with the annexation of Austria, from prominent collectors in Vienna. And then as the Germans occupied territories in Western Europe, and across the continent they plundered coveted works of art for the lens collection. 

Emma Atkinson (07:56): 

So about Nazi art plunder specifically, you wrote that it maintained the appearance of civility, especially in contrast to the German army’s theft and vandalism. Can you explain a little bit more about what you mean by that? 

Elizabeth Campbell (08:09): 

So for example, I think Hermann Göring is a really good example of how the Nazis wanted to maintain this air of propriety. And so they were really careful to draw up contracts. So I gave the example of Fritz Gutmann. So we can go into the archives and see inventories with prices. And that also can be an indicator of whether items were sold under duress is that price low for what the item would have gotten, if it were, if it were sold at auction, for example. So that can be useful information in determining the sale under duress. But he also wanted to have very detailed sales records, to make these transactions look legal. And so that notion of legality also is an interesting factor, because they were considered legal for decades, it really has taken quite a long time for experts and courts, legal authorities to recognize that those transfers of ownership were not legal, and that it was it was through a sale under duress, which has been considered a form of plunder. 

Emma Atkinson (09:25): 

It was really important to Hitler to maintain these records, to maintain this appearance of legality. And, tragically, because of the laws in the Germany and German-occupied territories at the time, these kind of transactions under duress actually were legal according to the letter of the law.  

Elizabeth Campbell (09:40): 

According to the laws of the time, as inhumane as they seem to us today, they were following the law when a Jewish art dealer, for example, say, an art dealer from France like Paul Rosenberg escaped, he had the wealth and the influence to get a visa to New York, set up a gallery in New York, but left behind hundreds of items in France. They were seized by the Nazis. And according to French law, he had given up his ownership rights by fleeing. So the French collaborationist Vichy Regime issued a decree saying that any Jewish owner who had emigrated lost the right to all of their assets. So in legal terms, then those items are up for grabs. And in most cases, the Germans were able to control the assets and a few the French were able to, as well, but they believed what they were doing was legal, that it was justified. There's also reports arguing that Jewish owners had wrongfully been holding the world's greatest works of art, and that the Nazis were liberating them from the hands of Jewish people. So they fervently believed in what they were doing and they believed what they were doing was legal. And in fact, it was according to the laws of the Third Reich and in the occupied territories. And so they felt very justified in committing this plunder. 

Emma Atkinson (11:20): 

It’s important to note, of course, that these laws were rooted and steeped in antisemitism, and that though the sales were, quote, “legal,” during the war, Jewish families were not only being unjustly stripped of their art, but also of their humanity. 

Musical interlude 

Emma Atkinson (11:43): 

What, if anything, is one of the most common misconceptions about this art theft during World War II? 

Elizabeth Campbell (11:49): 

I think one misconception is that most works were returned to the rightful owners. There are a lot of heroic stories, and rightfully so if you've seen the film The Monuments Men or read the books by Robert Edsel, he does focus on the heroic efforts of the Monuments Men – and  women, it's important to add because they're really important cultural officers who are women – and the official foundation created by Robert Edsel is now called the Monuments Men and Women foundation. So it's important to add that, but those books and popular films really focus on the heroic recovery effort. And it was heroic. I've read the day-by-day accounts of the cultural officers, and they were risking their lives to go into war zones and protect these masterpieces and make sure that we all could enjoy them today, and especially that they went to the appropriate countries of origin. The side of the story that isn't told as much as what happened to the works that were not returned to the rightful owners. And that's the question that really interested me because it was thousands of items. And many of them were masterpieces. And that was the goal for me in writing this book is to bring that story to light. 

Emma Atkinson (13:09): 

Now we've started talking about the recovery and the repatriation. You touched on the fact that not all allied forces were respectful in the recovery efforts, right? How has recovery and repatriation of cultural artifacts changed since then? 

Elizabeth Campbell (13:25): 

So during the initial period of restitution, thousands of items did go back to the rightful owners. So the cultural officers first created collecting points in Germany, where works would be taken from the salt mines and castles and churches, monasteries, where they had been hidden. They were taken from those Nazi caches, to the collecting points that were managed by the cultural officers and then their main goal was repatriation to the country of origin. They were not responsible for restitution to individuals, or museums. So their job was to get the works of art to the countries of origin. Then within each country, there was a committee setup that would manage restitution claims. And so that became a national effort at that point. 

Emma Atkinson (14:19): 

So in France, for example, about 75% of 60,000 repatriated works of art were able to be restituted. And the other 15,000 artworks? The French government, rather than continuing to work to reunite these pieces of art with their rightful owners... kept them. 

Elizabeth Campbell (14:35): 

This was an incredible opportunity for them to have works of art. There was Léger, Picasso, Matisse, some old masters... it was an opportunity to enrich the national collections. And that's the phrasing used by all of these governments, that they would take the unclaimed works and enrich the national collections. There was a real sense that it was part of their national heritage, no matter where the items had been produced, in what time period. The fact that that country held them made the items part of their national heritage. So they very quickly, so by 1950, determined that no private owners were going to be coming forward, either they had been killed, or they didn't want to pay taxes and fees on these items. And so according to state laws, they would have to be sold at public auction. So instead of letting them be dispersed, especially to the United States – because the US now in the post war period is really the rising power and the art market – rather than seeing them go across the Atlantic, they would keep them for French museums, embassies ministries, other public buildings. So it ended up being about 2100 works that were kept by France, about 4000 by the Netherlands, and a little over 600 by Belgium. And the ones that they didn't want, that were not seen as museum worthy – and that's how I get the title of the book – those ones that they chose were museum worthy. The rest they sold at public auction, and those proceeds went to the public treasury. So they benefited on both sides, either keeping the works of art or selling the ones that they didn't think really rose to the standard of their museums. 

Emma Atkinson (16:22): 

So I lost my art in World War II. And now it could be anywhere in the world. 

Elizabeth Campbell (16:28): 

Yes. And there were families who for example, the Gentilly family in France, had paintings by Guardi. So really important Italian paintings, saw them at the Louvre, and knew that they had been in the family's collection. But it was a case where it was a sale under duress and their claims had been rejected. And so in the early post war years, families would submit a claim and if they received a rejection, often gave up at that point, but the family members could go to the Louvre and see the paintings and say, “that used to be part of our family's collection,” and gave up for decades. Eventually, those were restituted in 1999. But it took decades and a shift in perspectives, especially around sales under duress. 

Emma Atkinson (17:17): 

Wow, how devastating that must be, especially for families who had been devastated already by the war, right? 

Elizabeth Campbell (17:25): 

Yes, it was just a compounding injustice. And so for them, and for many who are still claiming works of art, it just compounds the injustice of the Holocaust, and can be seen as: you're part of a long chain of events and people in decades since that have contributed to the prolonging of dispossession. So that's why provenance research today is still so important. 

Emma Atkinson (17:56): 

What is it about art, fine art, these cultural artifacts – what is it about them that make them so desirable and prone to theft? 

Elizabeth Campbell (18:03): 

Yes, so there are many different areas of art genres, collections that are stolen. You'll see a lot in the news these days about trafficked antiquities. So they have great beauty, they have high value, they can appreciate. So the art market during World War II was booming, because it was seen as an investment that was sure to appreciate during a time of economic upheaval. I think that were are seeing a lot of restitution cases and repatriation claims today, in a wide variety of areas, with Asian, African, Native and Indigenous, Nazi-era. They are such important tangible connections to our past. And I think in our increasingly digitized age, that for many people, communities, tribes, it can be seen as a way to have a tangible connection to the past. That is all the more important, given all the other ways in our lives that we really rely on digital information, that we yearn to have that connection to our past, either to a family or a community. 

Emma Atkinson (19:23): 

Art theft is not unique to World War II. Interpol calls it cultural heritage crime, and has a whole website dedicated to informing people about these crimes and sharing how to prevent them. 

And it’s not just advice for individual art collectors—there are guidelines that museums should take to heart, too. Provenance, the records of an artwork’s origination and journey from owner to owner, is a big part of those guidelines, and something that Campbell’s work is rooted in. 

You conclude your book with a short chapter on what you call the New Age of museum ethics. Tell me about what this new age entails. 

Elizabeth Campbell (19:56): 

I do think that we are part of a fascinating zeitgeist, where there is an awareness of the need to carry out research on a wide variety of items. Like I mentioned before, this goes across the types of collections that you'll see in museums, Asian, African, Native, indigenous. And then these categories overlap since the Nazis were trading antiquities and Asian items. But there's been a growing awareness of the need for research on items in all of these collections to determine if they had been stolen in the past, somehow traded illicitly, gone through some aspect of plunder. And then what is the responsibility of the institution today, to reach out to the rightful owner, whether it's an individual or a tribe or a community or a country in reaching out to an embassy? And then this, often if it's between countries, process enters the diplomatic realm. It becomes international negotiations at that point. There's just a growing awareness that that research needs to be done. And so we see this happening in Europe and the United States. You may have seen the subject of African collections is really important. And so European museums are prioritizing that area, as well as Nazi-era provenance research. 

Emma Atkinson (21:32): 

The ethics surrounding provenance is a prominent part of the programs at DU’s Center for Art Collection Ethics, run by Campbell. The Center provides postgraduate, non-degree certificate programs for students who have completed a bachelor’s degree program.  

The Center’s next event is a week-long hybrid training program on, you guessed it, Nazi-era art provenance research, led by Campbell this summer. 

Elizabeth Campbell (21:54): 

Institutions should be carrying out provenance research on any items that may have gone through an illicit transfer of ownership in the past. And often this work is done in response to a claim. So usually, museums have a very small staff, and don't have a dedicated team of provenance researchers. So this work tends to be done as claims come forward, maybe there's a negative article in the press. And so they're having to deal with a PR crisis. And so the provenance research will get done. What really needs to happen is for museums to devote resources to provenance research so that these objects can be researched not only in times of a claim or bad press, but to understand their own collections, and to take a proactive step to know what they hold, know the biographies of those items. And it's not only for determining whether they might have been stolen or sold under duress in the past, it's also just to better understand their collections. And there are ways to communicate that information to the public in really interesting ways that some museums are experimenting with – telling people, not just the artist, when it was created,  but the whole biography of the piece, which is fascinating in itself, so that people can learn about the whole history around the item, and how it ended up at that museum. So ideally, we would like these institutions to be doing provenance research on any object that might have been stolen or plundered and then in their permanent collections just more broadly, to understand the items that they hold. 

Emma Atkinson (23:40): 

So kind of looking back at your work, at this book, big picture: Why should Americans, modern Americans, care about what happened in World War II in terms of art theft and repatriation? 

Elizabeth Campbell (23:54): 

Americans really need to care about this because many works of art came to the United States after the war. So the center of the art market shifted to New York. It was already starting before World War II, but many of these items came to the US. For example, there's a really interesting case to watch and to listen for. So there was a Viennese collector named Fritz Grünbaum. And he was a victim of Nazi persecution, both for resistance activities, and he was Jewish, was killed at Dachau, had to sign over all of his assets, which included a collection of Schiele works. Egon Schiele, he was a protege of Gustav Klimt. And his works from that point on were resold in the decades after the war. Several of them, at least, have ended up in the United States.  

Emma Atkinson (24:51): 

Remember that story I told you, about the Art Institute of Chicago and Egon Schiele’s drawing? Let’s go back there for a second. Like I mentioned before, the district attorney's office in Manhattan has taken the position that it has the right to seize and restitute any piece of art that came to New York, was sold from New York and then dispersed elsewhere in the United States. As Campbell explains, the story is bigger than just Chicago. 

Elizabeth Campbell (25:16): 

They identified several museums in the United States that were holding these Schiele works from the Grünbaum collection, and included the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Carnegie Museum in Pennsylvania, and a few others, a couple private collections, including that of Ronald Lauder, who has been a very forceful advocate for the restitution of Jewish assets. He himself had one of these Schiele works. He founded the Neue Galerie in New York, which holds the very famous Lady in Gold by Klimt, known to a lot of people through the film, Woman in Gold. So this is Ronald Lauder’s project and that's exactly the area and type of art that he had collected and he himself is a strong advocate for the restitution of Jewish assets. He himself was holding one of these Schiele pieces.  

Emma Atkinson (26:10): 

The singular holdout? The Art Institute of Chicago.  

Elizabeth Campbell (26:13): 

They are arguing that they had acquired their Schiele item through legal sales. So it appears at this point that they are going to be willing to pursue litigation to keep that Schiele work. So that's a really interesting one to watch. Other institutions have said even if it's not entirely clear what happened to their specific Schiele item, they know enough about the Grünbaum collection, and also don't want to hold items that are potentially tainted by this Nazi theft and through anti-semitic persecution. The Art Institute of Chicago is taking a different path, so that is a fascinating case to watch. And I think it really illustrates why we all should care. These are museums that hold items in the public trust and we support them, we love them, we visit them, they get significant tax benefits from our government. And so we do need to pay attention to this history and to help encourage the institutions that we support to be ethical stewards of the items that they're holding in the public trust. 

Emma Atkinson (27:33): 

A big thanks to our guest, DU history professor Elizabeth Campbell, who directs the University’s Center for Art Collection Ethics. More information on her work, including a link to her newest book, is available in the show notes.  

If you enjoyed this episode, I encourage you to subscribe to the podcast on Apple Music or Spotify—and if you really liked it, leave us a review and rate our work. It really helps us reach a larger audience—and grow the pod.  

Joy Hamilton is our managing editor. Madeleine Lebovic is our production assistant and James Swearingen arranged our theme. I'm Emma Atkinson, and this is RadioEd. 

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