Hitler's Wristwatch: A Nazi Legacy Hidden in German Museums

By Steffen Winter

Photo Gallery: A Problematic Nazi Legacy Photos
Getty Images

Part 3: Selling Off the Hitler Collection

By today's standards, the Bavarian lawmakers would be found guilty of breach of trust, toward both the state's taxpayers and the victims' rights organizations.

A real estate deal concluded by Fritz Rüth, the president of the Munich regional tax office at the time, was also more than favorable to the buyer. In 1959, Rüth spent 7,000 deutschmarks to acquire the Schoberhof, a 5,311-square-meter property on Lake Schliersee that had been owned by Nazi war criminal Hans Frank, the "Butcher of Poland."

Neither the lucky bargain hunters nor the government brokers had much to fear. The Audit Court did not submit its classified report until 1971. And it had hardly been made public before a note was placed into the Finance Ministry files, to the effect that the public prosecutor's office was terminating its investigations because the statute of limitations had passed. The crime of breach of trust came under the statute of limitations after five years, and the last objectionable real estate sale had taken place eight years earlier.

As the auditors concluded, "none of the properties from the confiscated assets was offered for sale by public auction."

And why should they have been? The only people who could have had an interest in achieving the highest possible proceeds were the victims of the Nazi regime. Under the 1948 Bavarian law governing confiscation of property, the proceeds from these sales were to be paid to the Foundation for the Redress of Nazi Injustices and, following its dissolution, to the State Office of Restitution.

The Auerbach case illustrates the Bavarian authorities' reluctance in an especially brazen way. Philipp Auerbach, president of the Bavarian State Office of Restitution, had survived the Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps and, after the war, was a member of the Central Council of Jews in Germany. The bulky Hamburg native had a powerful voice and confidently represented, in Bavaria, the interests of those who had been persecuted for political and racist reasons. Auerbach rubbed people the wrong way and frequently received anti-Semitic mail -- until the government stopped him.

On March 10, 1951, he was arrested while on a business trip and accused of fraud, embezzlement, neglect of official duties and wrongful disbursement of reparations money.

'Victim of His Duties'

A court riddled with old Nazi Party jurists sentenced the Holocaust survivor to two-and-a-half years in prison. Two days later, the 45-year-old committed suicide with sleeping pills. An investigative committee in the state parliament rehabilitated Auerbach two years later, and little was left of the charges against him. Today the following words are inscribed on his tombstone: "Helper of the Poorest of the Poor, Victim of his Duties."

A complaint by the "Association of Jewish Invalids in Bavaria" also documents the climate in the early 1950s. The State of Bavaria, the letter to American occupation forces reads, was deliberately delaying restitution payments, even as it was spending billions on the non-Jewish population. Furthermore, the Christian Social Union, the conservative political party that held sway in the state (as it still does), was accused of neglecting the interests of Nazi victims for political reasons. The population, still living in want itself, also had little sympathy for the victims of Nazi dictatorship. Many felt that the government should first attend to the needs of Germany's war widows.

A similar mentality prevailed in Munich government offices, where a fair number of collaborators and accessories from the Nazi days worked. For instance, the general director of the Bavarian State Painting Collections from 1953 to 1957 was the same man who served in the position before 1945: Ernst Buchner. US historian Petropoulos describes him as "part of Hitler's kleptocracy." According to Petropoulos, Buchner played an important role in the seizure of Jewish collections and the Aryanization of Jewish art galleries. After the Night of the Broken Glass pogrom, it was Buchner who opened the National Museum to the Gestapo so that it could store Aryanized Jewish collections there. He also advised Himmler and Hitler on the appraisal of their looted art.

And he wasn't the only one. There were "experts" in key positions throughout the art business in the postwar era who assisted in various capacities in the biggest art theft of the 20th century. The artworks they had looted now fell into their hands a second time. Not surprisingly, they had little interest in tracking down Jewish owners.

The lack of attention Germans paid to the origins of their art treasures did not go unnoticed by the Americans. They considered selling what was left of the sensitive collections overseas. Perhaps it would have been the only morally correct approach to putting an end to Hitler's mad looting expedition. But the opportunity was missed.

Deliberate Cover Ups

In the mid-1960s, Germany began selling off portions of the Hitler collection. In doing so, it resorted to traditional channels. Two of the art dealers involved in the selloff -- though unknowingly so -- Kunsthaus Lempertz in Cologne and Kunsthandlung Weinmüller in Munich had also been used to acquire individual works of art for the Hitler museum prior to 1945.

According to the federal government, some 243 paintings, 47 works of graphic art, 10 sculptures and 24 articles of furniture from Nazi estates were sold at the time "to explore marketability." Because the market was still sluggish, the proceeds amounted to only about 1 million deutschmarks. Once again, the money was not paid to victims' rights groups but ended up in the federal budget instead, even though the provenance of the artworks that had been sold off had by no means been adequately investigated.

On the contrary, in some cases the origins were deliberately covered up, as a number of sales by the State of Bavaria show.

An example from a December 1966 Weinmüller auction catalogue: Lot number 1374, Vincent Sellaer, "Leda and the Swan." Regarding the painting's provenance, the buyer is referred to the Thieme-Becker Artists' Encyclopedia, Volume 30. On page 478, the encyclopedia lists the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Valenciennes, France as the last owner.

The truth, however, can still today be found on the CCP file cards in the German Federal Archives: "Property of Dr. R. Ley." Robert Ley, a major war criminal, was head of organization for the Nazi Party and head of the German Labor Front. The Allies found the painting -- clearly looted art -- in his possession in 1945. It was then transferred to the State of Bavaria

By the time the rightful owners began searching for the painting, it had long since been sold off. The new owner had no idea about its true origins. In the end, the rightful owners were paid the paltry 2,200 deutschmarks that the painting had fetched at auction.

Hitler's Photographer

Under the leadership of then Governor Alfons Goppel, a former member of the SA, the State of Bavaria sold 106 paintings in this dubious manner. Most were hawked at up to 40 percent below their appraised value.

And the proceeds? They were invested in new artworks, specifically those with untainted provenance. Munich's Pinakothek der Moderne acquired Georges Braque's "Woman with Mandolin" in this fashion. In 1967, the Bavarian state parliament had approved the purchase of the work, valued at 1.25 million deutschmarks, for the State Paintings Collections. The public was given a vague account of how the purchase was to be financed: with a contribution from the state, a contribution from the Association of Friends of the Collections and "sales from the property of the state gallery." The latter referred specifically to the proceeds from the scandalous sale of Nazi art.

Much of what went wrong in the restitution debate, that is, what should have happened or what shouldn't have been allowed to happen, is reflected in the case of one individual: Heinrich Hoffmann, born in 1885, Adolf Hitler's personal photographer since 1923.

Hoffmann, who Werner Friedmann, founder of the Munich Abendzeitung newspaper, described as one of "the greediest parasites of the Hitler plague," was one of the main profiteers of the Nazi state. The publisher and photojournalist, as a member of the "Commission for the Exploitation of Confiscated Works of Degenerate Art," advised the buyers for the Führer Museum in Linz and was named a professor of art by Hitler himself. In 1943, his personal fortune was valued at almost 6 million reichsmarks. Four years later, the Americans listed 278 works of art that Hoffmann claimed, untruthfully, to have acquired legally.

Hoffmann spent five years in prison after the war. In 1947, the Allies classified him as a "Major Offender," which meant that his assets were to be fully confiscated, a penalty he fought until 1956. Ultimately, he was permitted to retain 20 percent of his assets. In October 1956, the Bavarian Finance Ministry ordered "that all art objects (belonging to Hoffmann) under administration of the Bavarian State Paintings Collections" were to be "turned over to Mr. Heinrich Hoffmann, Nazi Party photographer."

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