The Führer's Taste: Hitler's Private Collection Goes Virtual

By Michael Scott Moore in Berlin

A musuem in Berlin has put the legendary Linz Collection, Hitler's private collection of art, online. It may be the first time since World War II that the all the pieces have been assembled in one place.

Adolf Hitler's notorious "Linz Collection" -- a private collection of art displayed in Linz and then stashed in salt mines at the end of World War II -- has now been put online in digital form by the German Historical Musem, not for casual viewing but to help track the provenance of some pieces.

The Führer's taste ran to bucolic idylls and precious German Romanticism, in particular 19th century painters from Vienna and Munich. He ignored, famously, "degenerate" art by realistic or socially biting artists -- among them the mightiest names of the 20th century -- but he managed to assemble a large and not insignificant private collection.

He wanted to use the art as the kernel of a large "Führermuseum," which he hoped to build in Linz, Austria, by 1950. For two years before 1945 some art was displayed in Linz, where the Austrian-born Hitler spent part of his youth. Hitler's foundation to support the museum was called the Sonderauftrag Linz, or "Special Project: Linz," and financed by proceeds from his book, Mein Kampf.

The collection, when it was whole, included 4,731 pieces -- not just paintings but also tapestries, sculpture, furniture and porcelain. The pieces themselves are now scattered across Europe. Some were identified and returned to their home countries by the Allies after World War II. Some were illegally sold, and some are lost. About 1,700 hang in German museums, under the stewardship of the current German government. But every single piece was photographed and catalogued by the Allies.

"There were about 50,000 photos, and each artwork had a number," Monika Flacke, coordinator of the project at the German Historical Museum, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. But actual details about each piece -- even the artist's name -- had to be re-established. "It's a matter of research," said Flacke. Even when details about a work of art are available, she said, "there's a gap. We may know the dealer (who sold it to Hitler's collection), but how did the dealer acquire the piece?"

The question with all Nazi art collections is: How much of it was stolen? Some of these questions in the Linz Collection are still unsettled -- and it may turn out that certain pieces owned by the current German government belong to living and traceable families. But Flacke said, "The portion of art known to be stolen or confiscated is relatively low" in the Linz Collection. Relative to Nazi art standards, that is.

The painstaking work of connecting the Allied photos and catalog numbers with identifying details of the art was first accomplished by Hanns Christian Löhr in a 2005 book called, "The Brown House of Art." Löhr's book is the basis for the digital database. He and Angelika Enderlein, a researcher at Germany's Federal Office for Central Services and Unresolved Property Issues, have helped Flacke put the database online.

"The online project is being done at my initiative," said Flacke. "But a lot of people have put their time and energy into it." She said research into the true provenance of each piece is still underway, and that opening the collection to the public should help.

With material from DDP.

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