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Seventy years ago this month, German Reichsmarschall, Hermann Goering took the stand at the Nuremburg War Trials where Hitler’s highest government officials were prosecuted for crimes against humanity. In Robert Edsel’s book, The Monuments Men, he relates the following: “Hitler’s would-be successor and rival for the cultural treasures of Europe, Reichsmarshall Hermann Göring…. saved his denials for accusations about his collection of art. ‘Of all the charges which have been leveled against me,’ he is quoted as saying in the Nuremburg Interviews, ‘the so-called looting of art treasures by me has caused me the most anguish.’”
Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472–1553) is one of the greatest German artists in history. To northern Renaissance painting, his fame is comparable to the recognition level of Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo in Italy.
Because of Cranach’s standing in German art history, he became a coveted artist to the Nazi regime in Hitler’s agenda to conquer Europe and establish a “super museum” full of works by the great artists in Scandinavia and in European history. This museum would not only represent the greatness of the Aryan race, but would also demonstrate Hitler’s power over the conquered and plundered nations by seizing their cultural treasures as trophies of the Third Reich.
Aryanization was the Nazi’s process of forcing Jews to transfer their property and wealth to Aryan hands—a sanctioned, organized course of looting. For some Jews, the trade of property (at low rates) in this discriminatory transaction allowed safe passage from Germany, but ultimately aryanization meant for Jews the confiscation of all property, eviction from business and cultural sectors, and outright deportation to the ghettos and eventually the concentration camps.
The Nuremburg Trials began November 20, 1945, and Goering took the stand March 13-22, 1946. In the Nuremberg Interviews, he expressed: “They tried to paint a picture of me as a looter of art treasures. In the first place, during a war everybody loots a little bit. However, none of my so-called looting was illegal… I always paid for them… Perhaps one of my weaknesses has been that I love to be surrounded by luxury and that I am so artistic in my temperament that masterpieces make me feel alive and glowing inside. But always my intention was to contribute these art treasures …to a state museum after I had died or before, for the greater glory of German culture. Looking at it from that standpoint I can’t see that it was ethically wrong.”
M&G’s Art of Sleuthing exhibition at Heritage Green shares behind-the-scenes stories of the art world, including those narratives of a painting’s life experiences. The story of North Carolina Museum of Art’s Madonna and Child in a Landscape by Lucas Cranach represents the voices of many people, particularly the victims of the Nazi aryanization scheme.
On exhibit is the beautiful, detailed Cranach along with its own story of aryanized looting from the Gomperz family in Vienna, Austria. A high-ranking Nazi official and Governor of Vienna, Baldur von Schirach, hung the painting in his office, and at the war’s end claimed it had been destroyed. Decades later, the Cranach was gifted to NCMA from the estate of WWII Jewish refugees from California, without knowledge of its difficult past. Then, in 2000, New York Holocaust Claims Processing Office contacted the North Carolina Museum of Art (NCMA) with an ownership claim by the heirs of Philipp von Gomperz for Cranach’s Madonna and Child in a Landscape.
Because Cranach, like most Old Masters, painted multiple versions of the painting, extensive research was necessary to determine if the Gomperz Cranach was indeed the same painting at NCMA. The moment of truth came when an old black and white photograph was discovered—an image that was taken while the painting was in Gomperz’s collection. A detailed comparison between the photo and the painting revealed that NCMA’s work was the same one.
On the basis of this clear evidence, NCMA made an unprecedented decision: to return the painting to the family rather than take the matter to court. Later, the museum expressed interest in purchasing the Cranach from the Gomperz heirs that it might become a permanent part of the NCMA collection. In gratitude for the unusually gracious manner in which the museum restituted the painting, the family sold the painting to NCMA at half of its estimated value. The Cranach now serves as an illustration both of cultural injustice and amicable art restitution.
Erin R. Jones, Executive Director
Published in 2016