Plundering Beauty: An Extract

In March, this year, we published Plundering Beauty: A History of Art Crime during War by Arthur Tompkins, a District Court Judge based in Wellington, New Zealand. 

The book charts the crucial milestones of art crimes spanning two thousand years, from the many wars of classical antiquity, through to contemporary conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, who's stories are extraordinary, devastating and often little-known.

The following extract is from Chaper 6, The Second World War: Western Europe


Between April 1941 and July 1944 a total of 4,174 cases, filling 138 railway boxcars and containing 22,000 different items (almost certainly just the documented tip of a far larger iceberg) entered Germany.32 Initially sequestered at the Bavarian castle at Neuschwanstein close to the Austrian border, later shipments went further afield. Frequently Valland was ejected from the Jeu de Paume by the suspicious Germans, but she talked herself back in. She worked closely with the French Director of National Museums, Jacques Jaujard, who maintained the Resistance safe-house she used in his apartment in the Louvre itself, with a key hidden in a courtyard.33 Jaujard was directing the French resistance to the confiscations, with varying success – ‘liquid­ating’ collections into the French national collections to (imperfectly) protect them, forging documentation, arranging spurious purchases followed by mixing the ‘purchased’ items with regular collections to foil identification, and superintending more mundane day-to-day obstruction and obfuscation. 

Rose Valland later became a captain in the French Army and from 1945 to 1953 worked tirelessly in Germany to locate, identify and return the looted art to its countries of origin (fig.34). A recipient of the Médaille de la Résistance (the French Resistance Medal), the Ordre national de la Légion d’honneur (the French Legion of Honour), the United States’ Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Federal Republic of Germany’s Officer Cross of the Order of Merit, she remains one of the most decorated women in French military history.

The Beginning of the End

In June 1942, his power being at its highest (although he was not to know that), Hitler decided to put right the grievous wrong done to Germany by the Treaty of Versailles, by recovering the Ghent Altarpiece. 

Bypassing the ERR and the other Nazi art-gathering agencies, he allocated the task directly to the director of the Bavarian museums, Dr Ernst Buchner. Buchner set out in a small convoy of one truck and one car, and entered Vichy France at Bayonne on 29 July 1942. 

The altarpiece at this stage was at the Chateau of Pau, in south-western France near to the Pyrenees, having detoured there from its original intended safe storage at the Vatican. But the French curator in charge stoutly refused to hand it over. Buchner called various people to endeavour to resolve the impasse, and a few hours later a telegram arrived from Pierre Laval, then the head of the Régime de Vichy, the French subservient government of southern unoccupied France. Laval ordered the altarpiece to be delivered up to Buchner. This effectively overrode an agreement that had earlier been entered into by the German-controlled puppet governments of Belgium and unoccupied France with Germany, and which required the express approval from all three governments before the altarpiece could be moved. It was loaded up and driven away into Germany.

By 1943 the tide of the war was beginning to turn against Germany and its allies, in Europe, in Russia, in Africa and in the Pacific. Alfred Rosenberg, who had by now wrested back a degree of control of his ERR from Goering, presented Hitler with a bizarre birthday present: 39 albums containing the jewels of the ERR’s plunder. On 16 April 1943 he wrote of how he hoped that:


[the albums] would send a ray of beauty and joy into your revered life. . . . [The] hundreds of modern French paintings . . . which from the German point of view are without value as far as the National Socialistic art perception is concerned, [ERR would] continue to trade them whenever a chance presents itself. . . . At the completion of the action, a proposal as to the disposition of the modern and degenerate French paintings will be presented.34


Ironically, a number of these albums survived the war, and were relied on by the prosecution at the Nuremberg war crimes trials.

In 1943 some works still in Paris at the Jeu de Paume, including paintings by artists such as Gustave Courbet, Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, Édouard Manet, Pierre Bonnard, Édouard Vuillard, Henri Matisse, Georges Braque and Raoul Dufy, were retained for future trading or sale. About 500 to 600 other works by Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Fernand Léger, André Masson, Paul Klee, Salvador Dalí, Joan Miró and others, were ripped or kicked from their frames, taken to the nearby Tuileries Gardens and burnt on 27 July 1943. The diligent ERR updated its records to show them as ‘destroyed’.35 

By the end of the Second World War, some 8,000 magnificent works of art were gathered together by Hitler for his Linz Museum, with many more held in reserve. By a variety of methods, Goering had accumulated some 1,300 masterworks, mostly at his increasingly grotesque estate at Carinhall, north-east of Berlin.36 Neither would live much longer, nor see their collections displayed and admired by a grateful public. The undoing of the Nazis’ grand larceny by a tiny group of dedicated men and women attached to the Allied forces is discussed later in this book (see Chapter 8).


Hubert (1385/90-1426) and Jan (c.1390-1441) van Eyck, Ghent Altarpiece, 1430-2, oil on oak panel, St Bavo's Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium 


A copy of the book is available to buy from our UK website and available to preorder from our US website, publishing on 2 July 2018.