Looted Art from World War II found in the US
A small group of Old Master paintings that an American G.I. won during a poker game in World War II are being returned to the Anhaltische Gemäldegalerie, a small museum in Dessau, Germany according to a report in the New York Times. Reporter Tom Mashberg writes the pictures were “won by an American tank commander, Maj. William S. Oftebro, who quietly mailed them home.”
In a ceremony at the State Department in Washington, the three works from Dessau and two other paintings taken by American G.I.’s were handed over by the soldiers’ heirs to the German ambassador to the United States, Peter Wittig, in an event organized by the Monuments Men Foundation, based in Dallas. “I just couldn’t keep them,” the major’s stepson, James Hetherington, 71, of Dallas, said. “Whether he won them in a poker game or not, they were stolen property.”
As Mashberg notes:
Though stories of art looting during World War II invariably focus on Nazi plunder, German and American officials say thousands of works, among them masterpieces by Dürer, Cranach and Hals, crossed the Atlantic in footlockers and mail parcels in the 1940s. Very few have trickled back.
The thefts from German castles and storage vaults in no way match the scale of Nazi looting, and were undertaken by men who had witnessed the bloody toll of German aggression. But few suggest American soldiers were confused about the rules of war. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower had issued strict directives forbidding such thefts.
“Yes, they were suffering and losing buddies,” said Robert M. Edsel, chairman of the board of the foundation, which chronicles and promotes the return of art stolen during World War II. “But they knew what they did was wrong.”
Mr. Edsel has spent much of his life researching the work of a small group of American troops who were assigned to safeguard European treasures against the retreating Germans and the advancing Soviets, events portrayed in the 2014 George Clooney film, “The Monuments Men.” He believes the return of artworks to Germany on Tuesday might prompt the families of other American veterans who defied Eisenhower and took illicit trophies to come forward with any items hanging on dining room walls or taking up space in the attic.
“We just have to hope the heirs will come forward now that they’re discovering these things as the veterans die off,” he said.
The report continues:
In the past, returns have been scarce. In 1992, rarities from the eighth century, including a gold-and-jewel-studded Bible cover, a hand-carved ivory and gold chest, and a rock-crystal silver reliquary, went back to a Lutheran church in Germany after a group there paid $3 million to the heirs of the Texas soldier who had them.
Seven years later, a 16th-century painting of Christ by Jacopo de’ Barbari was recovered by a museum in Weimar, Germany, after a Long Island man tried to negotiate a $40,000 reward for the work, stolen in 1945, saying it had mysteriously turned up in his wood shop. Instead, he was arrested and charged with selling stolen property.
Two years ago, eight antique manuscripts from 1533 to 1789, taken from shell-damaged Naples by an Army radio operator, were handed back to Italian officials by the operator’s grandson.
The three works obtained by Major Oftebro, whose 750th tank battalion had landed at Normandy, France, were among hundreds that the Anhaltische Gemäldegalerie, a small museum in Dessau, had crated and hidden in the Solvayhall mine, about 30 miles east. But when officers from the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives section arrived at the mine a few weeks later, they found that some hidden items had been taken.
Among those missing were “The Prodigal Son,” a 17th-century Flemish work by Frans Francken III; a landscape by the German artist Christian Wilhelm Ernst Dietrich; and “Landscape With Staffage,” by an Austrian, Franz de Paula Ferg. Experts said they would fetch between $25,000 and $50,000 each if sold today.