"Since World War Two, audacious art theft has continued at a steady rate. Interpol’s dedicated art theft department circulates a list of stolen works which now contains over 30,000 items, the top fifty most valuable of which comprise a staggering selection: Rembrandts, Vermeers, Caravaggios, Rubens, Picassos, Renoirs, van Goghs and Monets. When we think of looted art, the Nazis often spring to mind. Between 1939 and 1945 Germany removed 592.48 tons of gold from the occupied countries and looted an estimated twenty percent of Europe’s finest artworks. This art was distributed for Hitler’s benefit, including as gifts to henchmen such as Hermann Göring, who kept a staggering 1,500 paintings at his country estate Karinhall. However, as A History of Loot and Stolen Art grippingly reveals, looting of treasures and artworks has been rife since the earliest days of man. Examining the motivations of the world’s leading looters and art thieves, and the efforts that have been made at restitution of valuable works, A History of Loot and Stolen Art traces an astonishing line in history. Starting with the Ancients; Greeks, Romans, Vikings, Moors and Charlemagne, the author reveals the lust for pride of ownership and power over vanquished enemies that has driven conquerors throughout history to ruthless pillaging. From Sargon II who ruled Syria between 721 and 705 BC, Alexander the Great, Cesare Borgia, Pizarro the Spanish conquistador who defeated the Incan Empire; to Francis Drake, Napoleon Bonaparte, Joseph Stalin, Hermann Goering and Adolf Hitler, we eventually reach the twenty first century, in which hardly a day passes without news of another serious art theft. The author, Ivan Lindsay, says: Researching The History of Loot and Stolen Art allowed me to study the looting exploits of some of history's leading warlords. This subject continues to fascinate people, as shown by the recent release of the film, The Monuments Men which recreates the actions of art historians saving art from destruction at the end of WWII. And in late 2010 a hoard of 1,280 Nazi-era looted artworks were discovered in the Munich apartment of 82 year old Rolf Nikolaus Cornelius Gurlitt, the reclusive son of an art dealer.’ Sumptuously illustrated with more than two hundred images, A History of Loot and Stolen Art is a fascinating plunge into an undeniably tantalizing, intriguing world.
They had fantastic stuff there [in the US army collection point at Wiesbaden] ... In the office, across the whole back wall, was Watteau’s ‘Embarkation for Cythera’, and a wonderful Degas, where you look up through the orchestra pit, through the beards of the musicians, at those elegant dancers. It was from the Frankfurt Museum ... Just that office alone was worth the price of admission to World War II.’ Bernard Taper, art intelligence officer with the MFAA, in charge of the US collection point at Wiesbaden.
Various groups such as American Defense, Harvard Group and the American Council of Learned Societies had begun lobbying for a national organisation affiliated with the military to protect European art and monuments before the USA entered World War II. Francis Henry Taylor, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art took the idea to Washington and President Franklin Roosevelt established the ‘American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in War Areas’ on 3rd June 1943.
Known as the Roberts Commission, and headquartered in the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC, it provided lists of cultural treasures and monuments to the military. However, more important was its establishment of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program (MFAA) to assist in the restitution and protection of cultural property during and after WWII. Returning artworks as opposed to looting them overturned the principle that the conqueror was entitled to the spoils of war, practised since the Roman Empire, except for the restitution made after the Congress of Vienna in 1815
The MFAA consisted of around 400 enlisted civilians, known as the Monuments Men who were mainly art historians or museum curators. After the war Captain Harry Greer became Director of the Frick Collection; Lieutenant Commander James Rorimer became Director of the Metropolitan Museum; Sherman Lee becameDirector of the Cleveland Museum of Art; and Major Otto Wittman Director of the Toledo Museum of Art, to name just a few. General Dwight Eisenhower supported the MFAA by forbidding looting and the destruction of cultural objects or important buildings, prohibiting billets in monuments and ordering the regular army to assist the MFAA. Lieutenant Colonel Sir Leonard Woolley, the esteemed archaeologist who excavated Ur in Mesopotamia and served in the MFAA observed:
Prior to this war, no army had thought of protecting the monuments of the country in which and with which it was at war, and there were no precedents to follow ...All this was changed by a general order issued by Supreme Commander-in-Chief [General Eisenhower] just before he left Algiers, an order accompanied by a personal order to all Commanders ... the good name of the Army depended in great measure on the respect which it showed to the art heritage of the modern world. The Monuments Men accompanied Allied forces as they advanced liberating Nazi-occupied territories. They operated under the operations branch of SHAEF (Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force), which was commanded by Eisenhower. In Florence, for example, they provided aerial photographs of important monuments and museums to help Allied bomber pilots avoid destroying them.
Where they found damaged monuments and churches, engineer units tried to shore them up or repair them. Captain Deane Keller, a professor at Yale before the war, managed to help save the Campo Santo in Pisa after a mortar round started a fire that melted the lead roof which bled down the famous fourteenth-century frescoed walls. Countless other churches, artworks and monuments were saved by the Monuments Men and they often entered liberated towns before regular troops.
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About the author:Ivan Lindsay, who has researched the history of stolen art over many years, deals in old master paintings and Russian Twentieth century art. His enthusiasm and knowledge of his subject is highly evident in this book, which aims to become one of the seminal works on the subject. In his new book, The History of Loot of Stolen art, Ivan Lindsay examines the subject of art theft, listing the major art thieves through history and what they stole and why. Alexander the Great campaigned out of necessity to avoid Macedonian bankruptcy, removing 1,500 tons of gold alone from the Treasuries of the Persian Empire at Susa and Sardis, whereas the Vikings found undefended English monasteries full of gold and silver too tempting to ignore. Ivan Lindsay is an art dealer specializing in European and Russian paintings. He was educated at Eton College and the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. After four years in the British Army in South East Asia, he worked in the City of London before becoming an art dealer. He writes and lectures on art and the art market and is currently a Contributing Editor at Spears Magazine.
Ivan Lindsay (Photograph courtesy of Sophie Lindsay Photography) Website | Facebook | Twitter | LinkedIn | Pinterest Follow the Book Tour