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Art looted in wartime.

In times of war, artifacts are often taken as spoils along with gold, silver and other valuables. While some of these artistic plunders were done so that the loot could be displayed for glory, they were otherwise usually stolen simply because the conquerors hoped to make a profit from selling them. Starting with the conquests of the Romans, it soon became acceptable and expected for nations to loot art after vanquishing an enemy, and then to wage war over art. It even became customary for enemies to parade their spoils of war – including art pieces – plundered from their conquest. 

For one, Adolf Hitler looted art during World War II with the intention of displaying them in his own museum. He had a love for art, and planned to build the Führermuseum in his hometown of Linz, Austria. The museum was envisioned to be the greatest art collection in the world, both in size and quantity. With this museum, Hitler wanted to turn Linz into a rich cultural city of the Third Reich and overtake Vienna, perhaps as a means to get back at the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts which he had failed to gain admission into.  

To acquire a large enough collection for the museum, Hitler issued a law in 1938 stating that every piece of art looted by his soldiers would belong to him. Hitler sent his soldiers to acquire art in many different regions. He not only looted art, but also purchased some from Italy and France with his own money. It is estimated that more than five million pieces of art were confiscated during the Nazi occupation. However, the centerpiece that Hitler wanted for his museum was the Ghent Altarpiece by Jan van Eyck, not just because it was a famous piece but also because the Treaty of Versailles had it forcibly removed from Germany and given back to Belgium, and Hitler believed that it should rightly belong with the Germans. 

Even so, Hitler was not the only one among the Nazi army that had an interest in art. Another was Hermann Göring, a senior officer. Believing himself to be an art collector as well, he kept many of the looted artworks for himself despite Hitler’s command. There were also other soldiers who did not have the same interest in non-German art, calling it “degenerate art”, but only planned to keep the art so that they could sell it for profit. 

Here are just a few of the countless works of art that have changed hands during wartime. 

Deutsch de la Meurthe Drawings

These four Jewish drawings were originally from the home of the Deutsch de la Meurthe family, which lived in Paris at the time of the Nazi invasion. The house was taken over and the drawings confiscated. Nazis also used the house as a storage space for other art and furniture they stole. 

The drawings were missing until 2017, when they were discovered in the possession of Hildebrand Gurlitt – the head buyer for the Führermuseum. It is unknown how Gurlitt came to have these, but he was actually discovered to have a stash of 1,566 pieces of art in his son’s apartments, likely all acquired by the Nazis. However, it was difficult to say if all these pieces were stolen or if some were legally purchased. Others may even have been given to the Nazis by state museums at the time. Although Gurlitt’s son agreed to return all artworks that came from stolen sources, in some cases, determining the true owner of the art is next to impossible even with a fully equipped research team. 

Nevertheless, the four Deutsch de la Meurthe drawings were eventually identified and returned to the descendants of the Jewish family. 

Horses of St. Mark

This bronze set, featuring four horses in a line, each with one hoof raised, was stolen three times throughout history. The origins of the sculpture are not exactly known. Some historians believe that the horses were likely carved in the 4th century BC by Lysippus, a Greek sculptor who worked for Alexander the Great. However, the makeup of the sculpture presents a different perspective. Although the sculpture is commonly said to be made of bronze, it is actually comprised of 96.67 percent copper, suggesting that it was made around the Roman period, perhaps sometime in the 2nd or 3rd century AD. 

In around 330 AD, the horses were looted from an unknown location in Greece by Emperor Constantine and taken to Constantinople. Where exactly they were placed in Constantinople was not known for sure, but it was likely, based on an account of Nicetas Choniates, that they were displayed on the great gate leading to the Hippodrome. 

The horses remained there until the fourth crusade in 1204, when they were stolen again by Doge Enrico Dandolo after looting Constantinople. They were brought to Venice and placed on St. Mark’s Basilica, from which they received their name. 

In 1797, Napoleon Bonaparte stole the horses when he conquered Italy and sent them to Paris, where he ordered them to be melted down and made into cannonballs. However, the smiths declined, stating that the artifact was made of the wrong alloy, so the horses were mounted on the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel. 

Napoleon was soon defeated at Waterloo and the horses returned to Venice. Today, they remain in the interior of St. Mark’s Basilica, while replica horses built to weather the climate are mounted on the outside, atop the front arch of the entrance. 

The Wedding at Cana

Commissioned by the monks of San Giorgio Maggiore, the scene of the Wedding at Cana, showing the iconic first miracle of Jesus, was painted in 1563 by Paolo Veronese. It measures 22ft by 32ft (666cm by 990cm) and weighs one and a half tons. Veronese took fifteen months to finish painting it with the help of his brother. The painting was designed to fit perfectly on the wall of the Benedictine monastery on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice. 

However, when Napoleon invaded Venice in 1797, he took over the monastery and turned it into his Venetian headquarters. The Wedding at Cana was set to be transported to the Louvre in Paris, but since it was too large, it was cut into pieces horizontally and rolled up, to be reassembled once in France. It was stored together with Napoleon’s other looted art in the great hall of Musée Napoléon on the first floor of the Louvre. 

In 1810, Napoleon was to marry Marie-Louise of Austria in that great hall. With the six thousand guests expected to be attending, furniture and artworks were being hurriedly shifted around to make room. The painting was so large that Napoleon ordered, “Since it cannot be moved – burn it”, but the command was ignored by the curator Vivant Denon. 

After the Napoleonic Wars, efforts were made to return looted art to their rightful owners. Among these was the Wedding at Cana meant to be returned to Venice, but it ended up being excluded on the false premises by Denon that the canvas was too large and fragile. Instead, the Feast at the House of Simon by Charles Le Brun was sent. As suchArt looted in wartime, the Wedding at Cana remains in the Louvre Museum today in Paris. 

Author: Kelly Felder


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