Art World Hunt: The Quest for Hitler's Lost Treasures
A Dutch detective and Berlin police spent months searching for art commissioned by Hitler that went missing after German reunification. Officials finally recovered the dubious works in raids last week -- here's how they did it.
Moss has money and a fake Picasso, but no first name -- he simply goes by "Moss." He's in his early sxities and lives near Dallas, Texas. According to a major American law firm, Moss has $250 million (228 million) at his disposal at all times, but no one knows how he made his fortune.
The American collects objects with an unusual history -- and, if necessary, he is prepared to pay any price for them.
In January, Moss fell in love with two bronze horses created by one of Adolf Hitler's favorite artists, the sculptor Josef Thorak. They had disappeared for a long time, but now Moss had learned that an art dealer was selling the pair for $8 million. Not a problem for Moss.
Well, it wouldn't be a problem for Moss if he actually existed. But there is no Moss. He's the invention of Dutch art detective Arthur Brand, who created the persona as a way to respond to objects the art dealer was offering for sale, including Thorak's horses and other objects revered by the Nazis.
With Moss' help, the authorities finally carried out a sensational bust: During a nationwide raid on Wednesday, officers with the Berlin State Office of Criminal Investigation searched the apartments and houses of seven suspects and found an important cache of lost Nazi art treasures.
In the home of a collector near Kiel in northern Germany, police officers found a large bronze sculpture of a naked warrior holding a sword in his extended hand. Experts believe it could be "Die Wehrmacht," one of two sculptures created by Arno Breker, a top sculptor for the Nazis, for the main courtyard of Hitler's New Reich Chancellery in 1939.
The reliefs were part of the collection of businessman Rainer Wolf, on whose extensive property the investigators also discovered six large bronze figures: two female nudes by Fritz Klimsch, "Olympia" and "Galathea," Breker's "Der Künder" (The Herald) and "Berufung" (Mission), as well as two giant horses Josef Thorak had had cast in 1939 for the New Reich Chancellery.
Debatable Artistic Value
The works will be going to the German government, which most likely owns the sculptures, making it illegal to buy or sell the pieces. This fact has gotten a number of people in hot water with German prosecutors. Although a few museums will be pleased to be able to exhibit the original works -- as reminders of the fanatic cult of heroism that led to the deaths of millions of people -- the artistic value of the bombastic sculptures is debatable at the very least.
The hunt for Nazi art treasure is an unusual detective story that SPIEGEL has been following for months. It began with Thorak's horses.
Edeltraud Immel-Sauer is a former Berlin gallerist. She claims was abandoned by her wealthy husband long ago and then, in the 1990s, was cheated out of the remainder of her fortune by a fake Indian prince in London, leaving her to live in a tiny apartment in Berlin's Moabit neighborhood today with little more than the piles of books she has accumulated.
In September of 2013, Immel-Sauer was contacted by a former Berlin car dealer. He has faced charges in the past -- for failing to file for insolvency in due time, as well as for bankruptcy and money laundering -- but now advertises his services as an art consultant who offers his clients "interesting investment opportunities (also eligible for trust investment) starting at 50,000, and various merchandise on request." He also offers assistance with "infectious diseases (open wounds)."
The former car dealer wanted to know if she would be interested in acquiring two giant horse sculptures by Nazi artist Thorak. In a subsequent email, he wrote that he would charge 3.1 million for the works, "including air transport to the buyer's airport of choice." When Sauer asked him who owned the bronzes, he hinted that the deal involved a "grand master of the Order of the Temple," but that he was unable to provide any further details.
After doing some research at the Berlin Art Library, Sauer discovered that the two horses had to be the sculptures created for Hitler's New Reich Chancellery, which had disappeared decades earlier.
Other art dealers contacted Sauer in the ensuing months. One claimed that the sculptures were "from the estate of one of Germany's wealthiest families," while another cut off the negotiations, saying that he didn't like people "who ask too many questions."
A Notorious Character
What the dealers didn't know is that the elderly woman has been a police informant for years. In September 2013, she contacted René Allonge, the chief art investigator with the Berlin State Office of Criminal Investigation.
Allonge got the short end of the stick during German reunification, or at least he felt that way at the time. He was 17 and about to become a sailor on an East German deep-sea fishing vessel, but when the Berlin Wall came down he lost his job. Forced to seek a new profession, he became a police officer -- a very successful one, at that.
A genuine Wolfgang Beltracchi is hanging over the sink in his office. The work, titled "Landscape With Two Figures," was painted in the style of German Expressionist Heinrich Campendonk. In 2010, an investigation conducted by Allonge and his team led to the conviction of Beltracchi, a master art forger. It was Allonge's most spectacular case.
At that point he hadn't made much headway with the Thorak horses yet. He had checked off all potential sellers and had looked into some information about prior convictions and investigations in other German states, but none of this had yielded any tangible clues. But there were two passages in the emails from Traude Sauer that kept catching his eye.
In one of them, seller number one wrote: "The former seller was a man named Rainer Wolf, who presumably co-owned the bronzes with a Mr. B." Seller number two, on the other hand, claims that the bronzes belong to "one of Germany's wealthiest families." Who exactly could he have meant?
Allonge also didn't know about the phone call received by a man named Michel van Rijn on Jan. 13, 2014.
The international art market abounds with colorful characters, but Dutch national van Rijn has long been especially notorious. In the 1960s, he teamed up with dubious Armenian figures to smuggle Fabergé icons from the Soviet Union to Beirut, and in the 1970s he dealt in stolen frescoes and icons from Cyprus.
In the 1980s, he paid $700,000 in Italy for a drawing of a girl by Leonardo da Vinci, and after a year sold it to a Japanese museum for $14.5 million. Italian authorities wanted to arrest him for illegally exporting national cultural treasures, but then it emerged that the drawing was a forgery.
He has been imprisoned in Marbella, Spain, the Yugoslavian mafia offered a reward for his capture in Amsterdam, killers shot at him from a moving car but only hit his leg and he has been sought by Interpol. But then, in the 1990s, he suddenly changed sides and began working for the FBI and Scotland Yard. He lives in northern Italy today.
In mid-January 2014, he received a call from an old acquaintance in Antwerp, art dealer Steven de Fries, whose name has been changed by the editors. De Fries wanted to know whether van Rijn was interested in objects from the Third Reich, saying that he had a beautiful piece for sale. Van Rijn said he was.
In an email to van Rijn on the following Monday, de Fries wrote: "Hello Michel, I've made direct contact. My customer turned down the offer because there too is too much baggage involved. However, I think this is exactly the right thing for you. We have to pay 1.5 million, so a discount won't be possible. ... We need to act quickly. Call me. S."
De Fries attached a 14-page brochure to the email. The third page depicted a large color photo taken in a modern warehouse. The lost horses by Thorak were standing on two pallets, in front of a privacy screen. Next to them weretwo men, an old man dressed in a suit and a young man wearing jeans.
In an email sent early in the morning on Jan. 15, van Rijn wrote: "Very important. ... You have to know who the owner is, and you need to be 100-percent sure."
Two hours later, the Belgian replied: "Hi Michel, I have had exclusive control over this for some time. I had a buyer in the United States who wanted to donate them to the museum in Baltimore, but the board rejected the offer. The owner is a very well known family (Flick) in Germany, very much tainted by the war. Friedrich Flick was convicted in the Nuremberg trials, but he quickly became one of the richest people in Germany once again. The family has decided to sell everything associated with that period, including the horses."
De Fries added that a representative of the family would serve as the intermediary, and that he was in direct contact with that person. Time was of the essence, he noted, because the sellers wanted to get rid of the horses "as quickly as possible, because of the political circumstances. Call me to discuss the details."
Van Rijn let the matter rest for a few days before picking up the phone. But instead of calling the man in Antwerp, he dialed a number in Amsterdam: of art detective Arthur Brand, another expert in the field. In 2014, Brand revealed that Juliana, the former queen of the Netherlands, had allegedly bought Nazi-looted works of art. It was a huge scandal.
"I have something for you," said van Rijn. "I know that you investigate things like this. I don't do it anymore."
Now two men were looking into the case: Allonge in Berlin and Brand in Amsterdam. Although neither of them knew about the other, they had the same objective: To find Thorak's horses and possibly other lost works from the Nazis' ghoulish collection of art treasures.
"A gruesomely beautiful, blood-red sky towers above Berlin," Joseph Goebbels wrote in his diary on Saturday, November 27, 1943. "I can hardly look at the image anymore." After the third large-scale attack by British bombers in a week, the government district along Wilhelmstrasse, the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church and the zoo had been on fire for several days.
People may have been dying in the capital, but Hitler was pleased to know that his beloved bronze statues were in safety. Armaments and War Production Minister Albert Speer had had them taken to the town of Wriezen in the Oderbruch region, along the Polish border.
Statues for 'Germania'
It was there, an hour's drive to the northeast of Berlin, that Hitler had had the Arno Breker Stone Sculptor Workshops built, at government expense, for his favorite sculptor. An enormous studio had quickly been built on the spacious grounds along the Oder-Havel Canal. The building, 145 meters (475 feet) long, contained three large spaces in which, starting in June 1942, several dozen forced laborers and sculptors produced the giant nudes and 10-meter-high reliefs for Hitler's planned Germania world capital.
The entire complex was filled with monumental Nazi kitsch. The two horses from the Reich Chancellery were also stored there and were included in an inventory completed for the Wriezen site in 1943.
On Speer's orders, Thorak had designed the horses as a model for the "Coronation Group" at the Nazi Party rally grounds in Nuremberg, where they were intended to adorn the "Fuehrer's Tribune" on the March Field, together with a giant goddess of victory, armor-bearers and two men guiding horses. The two models, imperious-looking animals cast in bronze, ended up on the terrace of Hitler's study, possibly as a gift from the sculptor. Like Breker, his main competitor, Thorak was determined to be involved in the dictator's prestigious architectural project.
An 'Irreplaceable' Artist
"Thorak is our strongest sculptural talent. He must be given commissions," Goebbels wrote in his diary on Feb. 11, 1937. The sculptor divorced his Jewish wife in 1933 so as not to jeopardize his career. In 1937, he was made a professor at the Munich Art Academy and was awarded one of the coveted spots on the "God-gifted list," or list of artists considered crucial to Nazi culture. He was also placed on the list of the 12 "irreplaceable" fine artists of the German Reich.
But in the late 1930s, Hitler expressed a clear preference for Breker over Thorak. Breker was often seen coming and going at the Reich Chancellery, and although Thorak did well until the end, there were rumors in artist circles that Hitler had said, disapprovingly, that his female figures had "asses like brewery nags."
When the Red Army marched into Wriezen on April 16, 1945, Breker's workshops and his home, Schloss Jäckelsbruch, a personal gift from Hitler, were leveled. Berlin art investigator Kurt Reutti described a scene of devastation:
"The Russians had torched everything that would burn. There were six larger than life-sized bronzes lying outside the studio, along with the 5 x 3.5-meter bronze relief 'The Comrades ' and a destroyed marble relief, almost as large, titled 'Daphne and Apollo.' ... Two Breker sculptures from the Reich Chancellery were lying on the ground ... in a nearby field."
In late September, a senior official named Damerow, an authorized officer for the Breker studios, wrote in a note to his commanding office in Berlin: "(There are) also two bronze sculptures on the grounds -- seated women, somewhat larger than life-sized, by Prof. Klimsch, as well as larger than life-sized bronze horses." But the trail ended there. They were probably given the same treatment as the two Brekers mentioned in a memorandum dated May 17, 1946. It is unclear who wrote the memo, because the signature is illegible.
"On the morning of April 25, a vehicle (truck) occupied by Russians appeared on the grounds of the Breker complex and loaded two bronze figures. They were 'Mission' on a granite pedestal, which was completely undamaged, except for a bullet hole in the arm, and a completely undamaged statue, 'Der Wäger' (The Weigher). As we were able to ascertain by questioning witnesses, the sculptures were taken to Freienwalde on the orders of the Russian military commandant. Nothing is known about what happened to them after that."
An initial trace turned up in 1986, when Frank Lanzendörfer, who called himself Flanzendörfer, traveled around East Germany on his moped with a Russian super-8 camera. He was from Dresden, a lyricist, painter and performance artist, and he was searching for intense images.
In Eberswalde, in the northern part of Berlin, he stumbled upon the athletic field of a Soviet barracks after walking through some woods. There he found the kinds of images he had been looking for.
There were two naked, bronze supermen, "The Herald" and "Mission," by Arno Breker, standing in the snow in front of concrete walls covered with propaganda slogans written in Cyrillic script. Two bombastic bronze female nudes by Fritz Klimsch were sitting under some trees. The kneecap of one the nudes had been destroyed, apparently because the Red Army soldiers had used it for target practice. Thorak's giant battle horses were standing alongside the cinder track. All six sculptures were coated in a thick layer of gold paint.
Flanzendörfer edited his material into a 49-minute film accompanied by heavy punk music, titled "Iron-beaked Crows." In August 1988, he committed suicide by jumping from a fire tower in the Schorfheide region. He was 25.
By the spring of 1988, the story of the Nazi sculptures on the Soviet athletic field had reached Magdalena Bushart, a young art historian living in the western part of Berlin. Accompanied by some friends, she made a trip to Eberswalde, where they secretly photographed the six sculptures. A few months later, in early 1989, Bushart published the images in an article in a Marburg journal titled "A Surprising Encounter With Old Acquaintances." In her fascinating piece, the art historian analyzes how the obscure open-air ensemble "blurs the sharp lines between the Nazi and Soviet concepts of art."
In the turmoil surrounding the period of German reunification, the six bronzes disappeared once again. In March 1991, a reporter with the journal Die Neue Zeit traveled to Eberswalde and questioned officer Vladimir Mortyanev about the whereabouts of the pieces. "We were told to get rid of the sculptures, because they were from the era of Hitler's Germany," he said. "They were turned into scrap metal. Germans came and picked them up." After a West German newspaper had reported on the artworks in the former Soviet athletic field, local officials received orders from Berlin "in the late summer of 1988, possibly from the SED leadership," to remove the sculptures.
What had happened to the horses? While Allonge was making no headway with his investigations in Berlin in late 2014, Brand had received some valuable information after van Rijn had told him about the offer from de Fries, the art dealer.
He waited patiently for months so as to avoid arousing de Fries's suspicions. Finally, in December 2014, he sent him an initial email. He wrote that he had many customers who were searching for beautiful art objects and asked if de Fries could perhaps give him a call, but the man from Antwerp did not respond.
But then, on Feb. 12, 2015, de Fries suddenly called. What are you looking for, he asked? Well, Brand replied, my best customer is searching for things with an interesting history. His best customer was the Dallas man named Moss, the persona Brand had invented to gain de Fries's confidence.
Aha, de Fries said, perhaps I do have something for you. Two days later, he sent Brand an email with the brochure depicting the Thorak horses. Its value had exploded in the meantime, and de Fries was asking 8 million -- a relatively negligible sum for Moss. They arranged to meet in Amsterdam on Feb. 21.
A day earlier, Berlin Detective Chief Superintendent Allonge contacted Brand. He said that colleagues in Bavaria had told him that Brand had wanted to contact the Berlin police to provide them with information about lost Nazi art. "Are you referring to the Thorak horses?" Allonge asked at the beginning of the conversation. He was, and the two men agreed to work together.
Saturday, Feb. 21, 2015, noon. It was a rainy day in Amsterdam, with occasional flashes of sunshine. One of Brand's colleagues, Alex Omhoff, was posted in the museum district, looking inconspicuous. Brand and de Fries had agreed to meet in the George W.P.A. restaurant, and Omhoff's job was to secretly photograph the encounter. Brand waited in the street, nervously smoking a cigarette. Then de Fries arrived in a dark-blue Volvo with a red-and-white Belgian license plate.
During the conversation at the George W.P.A., de Fries drank wine and watched the pretty girls walk by. He was distracted and failed to notice that Brand was recording the meeting with his buttonhole camera. The conversation soon turned to the horses.
De Fries: "The owner's family has a fascist background. (He laughs.) The grandfather still has a lot of Nazi memorabilia. It is a very prominent family. A lot of industry ... The old man was still praising the Nazi era in interviews until recently. Now the family has had enough, and they have told him to get rid of the Nazi material ... Naturally, the sale needs to be top secret."
He had just received a text message, which he read aloud to Brand: "The horses are still in the stable."
"It's possible that there is another buyer, a retired US Army general ... I am meeting with him in Geneva next week ... Are you sure that your customer will agree to our processing the payment through Switzerland?"
"Perfect. Then we can do this through my Swiss company ... I believe the owner of the horses has other objects, as well, but I don't know what they are. They are extremely cautious. If this matter were exposed in the German press, the story surrounding this family would come to light once again ... I'll check to see what else the owner has to offer. I know that he once had a Mercedes that had been owned by Hitler."
"Has he sold it yet?"
"I don't know. Maybe he still has the car. He also has some of Göring's things."
The Flick Trail
Brand gave Allonge a report on the meeting. Their investigations were focused on two men. In one of the emails to his informant Sauer, Rainer Wolf, a businessman from Bad Dürkheim and admirer of Breker's art, is mentioned as a middleman. The second man's name was Flick. De Fries had also mentioned the name in his email to van Rijn. But which Flick was it? Was it one of the members of the renowned family of industrialists, which had had close ties to the Nazis?
The Flick trail eventually led to a large property on the Bay of Kiel in northern Germany. The owner had an excellent reputation among dealers of Nazi memorabilia. He was old and rich, and he had one of the Wehrmacht's "Panther" battle tanks tucked away in an underground bunker. Aerial images of his property showed two large bronzes, one of them most likely a Breker. But was this Flick actually a member of "one of Germany's wealthiest families?"
Brand told de Fries that Moss was getting impatient. When are we finally going to see the horses, he asked? De Fries tried to put him off by offering other Nazi objects, including a gold-plated fountain pen decorated with a swastika, which Hitler had supposedly given to Hermann Göring. He was asking 300,000 for the pen, and Brand indicated that he was interested.
The horses were apparently a more difficult proposition, so de Fries offered Brand Breker's 40-ton relief "The Watchman" instead. They had fallen into Russian hands in Wriezen after the war, and that the asking price was 8 million.
Brand met with de Fries in Amsterdam a second time on May 8. Once again, he recorded the conversation with a hidden camera.
De Fries: "Moss wants to pay through Switzerland?"
"Yes, just as you wish."
"Can we go through Monaco instead? I'm moving my business to Monaco, because of tax issues."
"Of course, everything is possible."
They discussed another middleman for the owner.
De Fries: "He's the owner's right-hand man."
Brand: Is he a lawyer?"
De Fries: "Maybe. He's some sort of a professor with a doctorate."
Brand: "Well, most Germans have a title like that."
De Fries: "Yes, like Dr. Mengele." (He burst into laughter.)
Brand tried to convince de Fries to show him the sculptures, but the dealer kept putting him off. His evasive tactics prompted Allonge to plan a raid instead.
Hitler's Sculptures Resurface
The operation was conducted last Wednesday. Allonge had his teams search the apartments and homes of seven suspects throughout Germany. They scored a direct hit in the home of Rainer Wolf in Bad Dürkheim where, in addition to the three enormous reliefs, they found all six statues that had disappeared from Eberswalde during the reunification period: the two horses, the two Brekers and the two Klimsch nudes. The officers reportedly also found the long-lost sculpture by Breker, "Wehrmacht," on Flick's property in Kiel. Hitler's sculptures had apparently resurfaced.
The next day, Flick was willing to talk to SPIEGEL. He had nothing to do with the family of industrialists, he said. He also claimed that he had not been involved in the sale of the horse sculptures and that he had never heard of the many intermediaries involved in the case, except Wolf, whom he had known for 30 or 40 years.
He said he had lent the man from Bad Dürkheim more than 300,000 deutschmarks in 1996, and that Wolf had given him the Thorak horses as collateral. The horses were removed from his property again two years later, he said, after Wolf had repaid the loan. Wolf was not available for comment. On Thursday, his attorneys merely issued a statement saying that the sculptures had been obtained lawfully and had been in the family for more than 20 years.
Flick confirmed the giant statue of a nude male with a sword standing in his garden could be Breker's "Wehrmacht." He claimed that the statue turned up in a junkyard at some point and was acquired "in East Germany" by a West German art dealer. He said that he couldn't remember how much he had paid for the alleged Breker, but that he didn't think it was a six-figure deutsche mark sum.
The sculpture wasn't signed by Breker, Flick claimed, and had been heavily damaged when it was acquired and was subsequently rebuilt. But parts of it were apparently from the original sculpture.
Flick admitted that he had a large collection ("but no art") in an underground bunker on his property. It included the Wehrmacht tank ("but not a complete one"), which he had purchased in England at one point as "scrap metal," uniformed puppets and historic weapons from World War II. Everything was "properly registered," he said.
De Fries contacted SPIEGEL on the evening of the raid. He was on vacation in Crete and only had a few minutes before going to a dinner appointment. Did he know a man named Wolf? "I don't know him," said de Fries. "I do have a friend whose first name is Wolf, though." He claimed that he had thought the whole thing was dubious from the start. "That man Moss," he asked, "he doesn't even exist, does he?"
A day later, he wrote in an email that he had been the one who had given Brand "the run-around." He said he was curious to see whether "such an idiot of a customer" would actually be willing to pay 8 million for the horses. When Moss agreed and accepted the "crazy price" for the Breker, he said, he felt like a character in a bad film. "I am truly outraged to have been dragged into this mess."
Allonge has also been stressed. The raid was such a resounding success that he now has a new problem to solve. How exactly does one cart away large sculptures weighing several tons? On Thursday evening, he reported that he had submitted a request to the Federal Agency for Technical Relief to remove the sculptures. The Nazi treasure is so immensely heavy that bridges had to be tested to ensure that they could support the weight.
Correction: In the original translation of this story, we erroneously described Alex Omhoff, who is a colleague of Arthur Brand, as his employee. The error has been corrected.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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