Wedding at Cana, Veronese, 1562 . (Photo by: Picturenow/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Stolen glories

Alexander Adams delves into two new books that examine the art theft of occupying armies in two different ages

Artillery Row Books

One of the first targets of an invading army is the art of the defeated. Once cities are secured, army officers of the occupying force seek museums, palaces and cathedrals, intent on retrieving art for the benefit of the victors. However politely done, it is no different from the pillaging of ancient history. Two new books examine the art theft of occupying armies in two different ages.

The Wedding Feast at Cana was painted by Paolo Veronese in 1563 for the wall of a Benedictine abbey on the Venetian isle of San Maggiore. Situated in the refectory, the picture depicts Christ seated at the centre of a wedding feast; the giant painting (almost 7 metres high by 10 metres wide) teems with brightly robed figures set in an illusionistically rendered architectural setting.  On completion, it was recognised as a masterpiece of the Late Renaissance/Mannerist era, with connoisseurs travelling from around Europe to marvel at the painting.

Napoleon’s Plunder and the Theft of Veronese’s Feast by Cynthia Saltzman, Thames & Hudson, May 2021, £25

Cynthia Saltzman’s Napoleon’s Plunder and the Theft of Veronese’s Feast recounts what happened when Napoleon defeated the Austrians and took control of northern Italy in 1796, and how his roving eye turned to art. Portable treasures were to be sold to finance the cost of the war effort; the greatest of the art would be reserved for the Musée Napoléon, the French Republic’s public art museum (sited in the Louvre). Saltzman outlines the extraction of art from not only Italy but Spain, Flanders, Holland, Vienna and Berlin, all intended for Napoleon’s museum.

Veronese’s painting was painted on canvas, meaning it was detachable from the wall. In August of 1797, the painting was removed from the wooden stretcher attaching it to the wall, causing some minor damage. It was then rolled on a large cylinder and shipped to Paris. A small consignment of paintings and the bronze horses and winged lion of St Mark’s Square were paraded through Paris upon their arrival, imitating triumphs of Roman generals. When the French regime was criticised for plundering art, the Musée Napoléon was the riposte. “Napoleon had further to justify his Italian art looting by showing the French to be worthy possessors. […] They wanted the museum to reflect their modernity, their support for the Enlightenment, and their enthusiasm for the classifying methods of the natural sciences.”

The defeat of Napoleon in 1814, the nations and territories reclaimed their art from Paris. Surprisingly, 248 of the 506 paintings from Italy were retained by the French. Some had been dispersed to museums around the country; others, like Veronese’s Wedding Feast, were deemed too delicate to move. Hence, Veronese’s masterpiece hangs to this day in the Louvre. Saltzman is clear on technical matters, without being overly fussy, in this lively account; extensive footnotes provide her sources.

The art dealers who worked with the Nazis continued to exploit their contacts for years after the war

Jonathan Petropoulos demonstrates that the art dealers who worked with the Nazis in the plundering of the private art collections of Occupied France (primarily of Jews) continued to exploit their contacts and sometimes art of dubious provenance for years after the war. His book Göring’s Man in Paris centres on Dr Bruno Lohse (1911-2007), head of the art collection in Paris for the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg, the occupation department headed by Alfred Rosenberg. Lohse provided Göring with over 700 pictures for his personal collection, but many more pieces of value passed through the organisation’s store rooms under his watch. About 30,000 items were looted from France, earmarked for the state or for sale.

Lohse studied art history in the early 1930s and wrote his doctoral thesis on a lesser-known German landscapist. He was a low-level art dealer when he joined the SS in 1933. He served in the Polish campaign in 1939, which left him wounded. In 1941, Lohse was transferred to Paris and would thereafter act as Göring’s agent. The SS would raid homes of Jews and the once the family was removed, Lohse would come in and identify art of value to be confiscated. Once a significant batch of high-quality work had been acquired, Lohse would mount exhibitions of confiscated art at the Jeu de Paume gallery, where Göring would tour and select pieces he wanted, free of charge.

In a time of deprivation in Paris, Lohse lived a lavish lifestyle, dining and drinking well, his car and fuel free and wearing civilian clothes. He had a number of affairs. Best of all was a warm and respectful relationship with the Reichsmarschall, who treated him as a personal adviser on art. The cost of luxury and status was ruthlessness. There was one incident where Lohse interrogated a Jewish art dealer, who had been turned in by an informant to the SS in Monte Carlo. The dealer was later sent to die in Auschwitz.

Göring’s Man in Paris: The Story of a Nazi Art Plunderer and his World, by Jonathan Petropoulos, Yale University Press, £25

“[…] Lohse, then and in retrospect, seemed more opportunistic than ideological. He did not count among the most radical Nazi ideologues and he tried to save certain Jewish individuals [including art historian Max Friedländer] from what he knew was a terrible fate.” It cannot be said that Lohse took great risks to assist Jews, but he did use his influence. However, he undoubtedly benefited from trading – and occasionally stealing – art parted under duress from Jewish owners. It seems he personally acquired works outside of his SS activities in circumstances that appear murky.

Lohse was held as a prisoner of war from 1945 until 1950. Despite his clear participation in property seizures, personally profiting through the actions could not be proved and his co-operation with interrogators weighed in his favour. Testimonies noting his saving some Jews from deportations showed the defendant in a good light. He was acquitted in his 1950 trial. His preliminary detention was longer than actual sentences handed out to some colleagues.

Once Lohse had gone through the process of denazification, he was able to trade again – part adviser, part dealer – based in a modest flat in Munich. He renewed contacts with dealers who had participated in the trade in looted goods; he advised German industrialists on acquisitions. Petropoulos describes the high society of Munich in the post-war period re-forming itself in a comfortable network of middle-ranking ex-Nazis and wealthy business families.

The strict secrecy of Swiss banking and art circulation through untaxed freeports has made Switzerland a zone of obscurity that has aided trade in stolen art. Labyrinthine connections between opaque trusts and shell companies in Switzerland and Liechtenstein conceal plundered goods secreted in bank vaults. Petropoulos takes us on his personal quest to locate a plundered Pissarro, showing us how insiders use secret meetings, verbal agreements and anonymous foundations to shuffle art of dubious provenance, even today. Twenty percent of property stolen from France is still unaccounted for.

In Göring’s Man in Paris, the author recounts his interviews of Lohse before his death in 2007 and many hours scouring archives, unpicking some of the subject’s self-serving lies. In so doing, he presents us with some enduring puzzles. What happened to 71 Impressionist works stolen from the Jeu de Paume depository? Were they spirited away by SS officials or saved by the French resistance? What are the histories of the paintings owned by Lohse at the time of his death, which include pieces by Courbet, Cranach, Monet and Renoir? Both books convey the extent to which past events cast shadows over the art we enjoy today.

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