Hitler, the prince and the Dürers: The complex story of Lviv's looted Old Master works

After a long, strange journey, the Lubomirski Museum Dürers are now subject to restitutions claims by both Poland and the Ukraine


An Art Newspaper investigation has revealed that one of the world’s greatest collections of Dürer drawings was dispersed in dubious circumstances and is now likely to become the subject of international claims. The Dürers, which had been at the Lubomirski Museum in Lviv since 1823, were looted by the Nazis and later sold in the West. Among the institutions which now own these drawings are New York’s Metropolitan Museum, the National Gallery of Canada, Rotterdam’s Boymans-van Beuningen Museum and the Courtauld Institute Galleries in London.

After the American army discovered the twenty-four Dürers hidden in an Austrian salt mine, they decided against returning them to Lviv, then part of the Soviet Union, but secretly handed them over to a descendant of the Lubomirski family. This happened in 1948, a year after Prince Georg Lubomirski had privately told US officials that if the drawings were recovered he wanted to donate them to the National Gallery of Art in Washington. But when the Dürers were eventually given to the prince he simply sold them on the international market.

Although Western governments are now pressing the Russians for the restitution of works of art looted by the Red Army, very little attention has been paid to America’s decision not to return the Dürers to Lviv (formerly known as Lemberg, Lwów and then Lvov). Our investigation suggests that the fate of the drawings represents a serious blemish on America’s otherwise exemplary record over the return of works of art looted by the Nazis.

Last month one of the American officers involved in the restitution of looted art in the 1940s admitted his regret at what had occurred. “I believe that this was only done because influence was brought to bear by the State Department or US intelligence agencies”, Bernard Taper told The Art Newspaper.

Based on Nazi documents, newly declassified US government papers and Soviet diplomatic correspondence, we have uncovered the story of how Cold War politics deprived the war-devastated city of Lviv of one of its greatest treasures.

Lviv may seem an unlikely home for a major collection of Dürers, but in the nineteenth century it was part of Austria. The drawings were probably among those acquired by Rudolf II in the 1580s and owned for over 200 years by the Habsburg emperors. They were eventually bought by Prince Heinrich Lubomirski, an aristocratic landowner, who presented them to a museum which he established in Lviv in 1823.

For over a century, the drawings lay in a box in the museum, totally unknown to Dürer scholars. It was only in 1927 that their rediscovery was announced in an article published by H.S. Reitlinger in the Burlington Magazine. Lviv suddenly found itself the proud owner of one of the finest collections of Dürer drawings, after those in the Berlin Kupferstichkabinett, Vienna’s Albertina and the British Museum. Among the works was one of Dürer’s masterpieces, his magnificent pen-and-ink self portrait of 1493 (ill. p.6).

By the time of the rediscovery of the drawings, Lviv had become Polish, following the demise of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918. In World War II, the city suffered terribly. After the German-Soviet non-aggression pact, the Red Army occupied Lviv in September 1939. The Soviets then closed the Lubomirski Museum, although art historian Professor Gebar-owicz succeeded in hiding away the precious Dürers.

For nearly two years the city was occupied by the Soviets, but following the break-up of the non-aggression pact, German troops fought their way into Lviv on 22 June 1941. Among the first Nazi officials to enter the city was Kajetan Mühlmann, the Special Commissioner for the Protection of Works of Art in the Occupied Territories. Despite the title, his role was to loot the finest art for Germany. His mission in Lviv, undertaken on the personal orders of Reichsmarshall Hermann Göring, was to find the Dürer drawings for Hitler.

It took Mühlmann six days to track down the hidden Dürers. A Nazi report records that the unfortunate Professor Gebarowicz had to be “thoroughly interrogated” before he eventually revealed the hiding place of the drawings. Mühlmann immediately took them to Berlin and handed them over to Göring, who later the same day presented them to Hitler.

Hitler was so enthralled by the Dürers that he ordered they should be brought with him on his military visits to the Eastern Front. This decision worried Mühlmann, who was responsible for their “protection”. In September 1941 Hitler told him that he was assuming personal responsibility for the Dürers. In explaining why he took them on his visits to the Front, Hitler said that they were safe “and besides, I can see them more often”.

For most of the war, the Dürers were kept in Hitler’s office in the Reichskanzlei, but fortunately once the Allies began to close in on Berlin the drawings were sent for safekeeping to the Alt Aussee salt mine, near Salzburg in Austria. When the end of the war finally came, Lviv was so devastated that tracking down the missing drawings hardly seemed a pressing priority. Nothing was heard of the Dürers and it was feared that they had been destroyed.

Prince Georg Lubomirski, descendant of the founder of the Lviv Museum, had fled to neutral Switzerland during the war. In April 1947 he went to the US military attaché in Switzerland with an enticing offer. In a confidential document, declassified earlier this year, the Office of the Deputy Director of Intelligence of the US’s European command reported that the prince had promised that if the Dürer drawings were recovered, he “wished to donate them” to the National Gallery of Art in Washington. He also offered to give two paintings, a Titian and a fifteenth-century German picture.

On 6 January 1948 Prince Lubomirski travelled to Germany to call on US art recovery officials and again ask for American help in tracking down the lost Dürers. One week later there was success. The drawings had been removed by US forces from the Alt Aussee salt mine and taken to the Munich Collecting Point. In a letter dated 13 January 1948, Collecting Point director Stewart Leonard wrote with great excitement about how he had opened the box containing the Dürers, seeing the works which Hitler had kept for his private enjoyment as he made war on Europe. Leonard noted that these drawings had been “given to the museum at Lemberg”.

Initially Prince Lubomirski had been told that claims for works of art had to be submitted by governments, not individuals, and “restitution is to be effected to nations rather than individuals”. On 14 January, the day after the discovery of the Dürers, art restitution official Bernard Taper also recorded that he believed that “the Lubomirski family donated these drawings to the Lemberg museums”.

The US documents reveal that there was then a wrangle over what should be done with the Dürers. Taper ended his letter by commenting that he had been contacted by US intelligence officer Major Vivian, who was “attempting to take some action” on behalf of “other unnamed agencies which were also interested in the affair”. This suggests that Prince Lubomirski had won the support of intelligence agencies which were intervening on his behalf.

The fate of the Lviv Dürers went up to a higher echelon. On 26 August 1948 the US Office of Military Government for Germany sent a “secret” letter recording a change of policy. Authorisation was given to return items to individuals, not just governments. The only specific artworks referred to in these new instructions to the Munich Collecting Point were the Lviv Dürers. Art restitution officers were told that the drawings should be handed over to Prince Lubomirski, as long as he accepted them “without publicity”.

Once the Dürers were safely in his hands, Prince Lubomirski decided that rather than give them to Washington’s National Gallery of Art, he would sell them. He sold sixteen drawings to the London dealer Colnaghi’s in 1954 and others were handled by the New York gallery Paul Drey. The prince lived off the proceeds on the French Riviera.

Based on a German inventory, The Art Newspaper has identified the twenty-four sheets of looted drawings (some are double sided). Fourteen sheets are now in public collections, in London, Birmingham, Rotterdam, Ottawa, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Kansas City and New York. Ten others are in private collections in Britain, Germany, Canada and the United States.

In recent years there have been unpublicised attempts to recover the Dürers. In December 1991, when the Soviet Union was on the verge of collapse, Culture minister Nikolai Goubenko asked the British authorities to assist in the “return to their rightful owners” of the Lviv drawings in UK collections. Within a few days of the despatch of Goubenko’s letter, the sovereignty of the Ukraine was recognised internationally.

The next attempt to recover the missing Dürers was thwarted by tragedy. In December 1991 Lynn Nicholas, author of a major new study on looted art, The Rape of Europa, published by Macmillan (see review in The Art newspaper, No. 40, July-September, p. 27), spoke with the curator of the Lviv Art gallery, Dmitri Shelest. “Shelest told me that he had seen documents from Heinrich Lubomirski saying that he had given the Dürers to the museum in the 1820s and that the prince had wanted them to stay in Lviv whatever political changes occurred. He said that he hoped to pursue a claim for the drawings which had gone to the West”, said Nicholas.

On 29 April 1992 Shelest was shot dead during an armed robbery. Burglars had entered the gallery and the curator and deputy administrator Yaroslav Volchak were killed in a brave attempt to prevent a theft. A friend of Shelest told us last month that the curator had just begun research on the story of the Lviv Dürers when he had been shot trying to protect his gallery. He had wanted to publish the article in order to alert the international art community to the loss.

At present the Dürers are claimed by both the Ukraine and Poland, representing the original home of the Lubomirski Museum in Lviv and the present base of the Ossolinski Institute in Wroctlaw. Earlier this year discussions began between art historians in the two countries with a view to formulating a joint claim, which would presumably involve sharing any drawings which are eventually returned.

The legal position is complex. Prince Georg Lubomirski was given the drawings by the American military government in Germany. He then sold them to dealers and some of the drawings have subsequently changed hands several times. The public collections which have acquired the Dürers argue that they acquired them legitimately and in good faith and with good title. The case of the Lviv Dürers is therefore quite different from the works which the Red Army secretly took back to the Soviet Union as war booty.

Nearly fifty years after the decision to give the drawings to Prince Georg Lubomirski, US art restitution officer Bernard Taper now publicly admits that political considerations intervened. He told The Art Newspaper: “It was quite wrong not to return the Dürers to Lviv”.


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