by Marc Masurovsky
The twenty-year old discussion about Nazi looted art and restitution tends to skirt a fundamental point: how was it able to happen? And most importantly, how were its fruits internationalized and monetized on a global scale?
If one looks at art as a business, then one can understand that the rise to power of Hitler on January 30, 1933, did not put an abrupt end to business relations between Germans and their counterparts outside the nascent Third Reich. In fact, it was business as usual. Many scholars have already covered this ground, but have been shy to point out that the Nazi plan against its perceived enemies, especially the Jewish community of the Reich and ultimately of continental Europe, was grounded in economic motivations as much as it was rooted in age-old anti-Semitic stereotypes and myths of alleged Jewish evil and malfeasance towards civil society and its institutions, even going as far as accusing Jews of holding the Zeitgeist of the nation hostage to their supposed base needs.
That said, the art world continued to function as before January 1933, except for the inevitable casualties of business under the Nazis, who enforced interdictions against artists and intellectuals and their supporters in the cultural and financial spheres. The attack against so-called degenerate art, objectionable forms of expression, forced the disgorgement of thousands of works and objects onto the private art market, followed by the purging of such banned pieces from German state museums and their sale inside and outside the Reich. The international community responded with its checkbook and began acquiring at bargain basement prices, works which had not been so easily available during the Weimar period.
The Nazis understood the financial power of art as a pendant to their attack on Kultur which eventually extended across Europe.
In sum, the domestic plunder of German citizens and their art collections finds natural outlets in and through networks of affiliation long ago established and strengthened across the international corporate community. The appeal of specific styles by conservative elites—from antiquities to medieval and old masters all the way to the 18thand early 19thcenturies—act as a pump for art dealers with ready access to those works being funneled into the market by desperate people seeking quick cash to subsist and/or to fund emergency trips into exile and to safe havens.
The evidence is compelling that, from the first forced sales of summer 1933 in Berlin, buyers were in attendance from neighboring countries and far-flung ones—Great Britain and even the United States. The incidental business tourists who happened to find themselves in Nazi Germany with some disposable cash frequented auction houses where Jewish-owned property was being sold. These items in turn were repatriated back to their native countries to be included into their places of business and residence.
Hence, from the mid-1930s, looted cultural property is flowing outward following long-established networks of trade and kinship ties between foreign clients and their German dealers and middlemen.
The same scenario is repeated even more brutally following the March 1938 Anschluss of Austria with American investment banks like Goldman Sachs advising its clients to buy up devalued property ensnared in Aryanization procedures. Let’s not be naïve, as there are hundreds of Allied companies operating subsidiaries in the Greater German Reich with which they are not yet at war. Normal business relations continue unimpeded, these subsidiaries allow their boards to be aryanized by transferring out their Jewish cadres in order to appease the New Order.
These accommodations with authoritarian governments began long before Hitler came to power. Indeed, since 1922, Benito Mussolini ruled Italy with an iron fist, which appealed to many foreign businessmen who preferred to have some sense of order that would maintain social peace in their Italian subsidiaries. Moreover, European and American dealers traveled to and from Italy every year throughout the 1920s and 1930s to conduct business, exchange or acquire works of art, organize and borrow exhibits for display in their homelands. Hence, Fascism and later on Nazism did not create moral and ethical qualms for Europeans and American citizens as they pursued business opportunities with authoritarian, racist, racialist governments.
So, when we discuss how on earth did objects looted during the early years of the Third Reich ever manage to enter Western European and American collections, one should not look too far and too deep for an answer to that question. The same reasoning applied to the sale and exchange of other commodities. For instance, the Leipzig Trade fair attracted American buyers up until the late 1930s, even though trade associations in the United States expressed some concerns over the probity of maintaining commercial relations with companies in the Reich that discriminated against their Jewish employees and which had absorbed Jewish businesses through aryanizations, selling the aryanized property to foreign buyers.
Also, the international gold trade had been mired in some controversy after the Anschluss and the invasion of Czechoslovakia with the blessings of France and Great Britain, the gold reserves of both countries having been absorbed by the Reich, and their contents used on international markets to acquire badly needed foreign currencies. The US Treasury became aware of these movements of gold but were unable to prevent those bars from entering the US gold reserves on account of a fundamentalist approach to the international gold market. Nothing should be done to disrupt the inflow and outflow of gold because the dollar’s value was pegged to a fixed value of gold. Hence, any political disruption of the international gold matket rooted in discrimination against gold provided by the Reich as collateral to purchase foreign currencies was prohibited, unless the US wanted to destabilize the dollar’s value and therefore endanger the economic recovery of the US in the years following the Great Depression.
The international art trade mirrored closely the way in which international business relations were conducted between the future Allied and Axis countries. Provenance of goods and services was never held to account as a prerequisite for conducting business. Hence, the desire to question the origin of the goods and services was rarely raised and even when it was, could not be invoked as a reason not to conduct business with a German or Italian entity or individual. One would have to wait for a state of war to exist between the US, Great Britain and the Axis powers to restrict trade relations, including the international movement of art objects.
But, as we all know, where there’s a will, there’s a way.