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Book Review: How we almost lost the Mona Lisa

The Spanish involvement with Nazi-looted art and the part played by the Austrian resistance in saving works of art are among the revelations in this book

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This investigation into the history and current crisis in the restitution of art looted by the Nazis has been overtaken by events, something that comes as no surprise in a field of inquiry that changes day by day. Yet Peter Harclerode and Brendan Pittaway have filled their readable story with new details about the Nazi race to amass art looted from Jews and other conquered enemies, and the dealers' race to supply them.

Once again, we see that Nazi looting was not an example of the banality of evil, in which armies simply followed orders. It was a megalomaniacal empire-building at the top, and a free-for-all at the bottom. Much of the book's information comes from familiar sources: the reports of Allied officers who tracked down the art and the looters, with mixed results.

The authors are right to stress that much of this art still remains unrecovered, and that the individuals and institutions holding it have been slow to even consider giving it back. In spite of grandstanding in public forums on behalf of the "last prisoners of war," as these paintings are called, restitution is a low priority for the governments involved. The lost masters is another reminder that this will be a slow, incomplete process.

Yet there are some surprises here. The authors have looked carefully into unsuccessful Allied efforts to control Nazi activities in neutral countries, especially Spain, where paintings were brought for sale and for export abroad, mostly to South America. The authors also deal with Lisbon's little-known role as a port of relay for looted art to New York.

In 1944, Alois Miedl, a Dutch dealer who bought paintings for Goering, offered some sixty pictures to the Prado, which the museum declined to buy, suspecting they were looted—a rare refusal to join in the feeding frenzy. Miedl was brazen enough to publish a catalogue of looted works offered for sale as coming from the Nazi leader Hermann Goering's collection, earning the wrath of German officials in Spain for such high-profile salesmanship. Some 200 paintings that Miedl smuggled into Spain and sold in Madrid have never been recovered. Moreover, Miedl was never extradited to Holland to answer for his misdeeds. And the elite of Spanish society were involved in the smuggling operations, which were a front for KGB manoeuvrings in Madrid, the authors maintain (they rely heavily on recollections of an American woman, Aline Griffith, who through marriage became the Countess of Romanones).

Formerly employed by the Office of Strategic Services (precursor to the CIA) she discovered that a group of her acquaintances masterminded the operations that brought art from Paris to Madrid, and then sold it. Volume in that trade was heavy, but the former agent will still not disclose the names of the persons involved, although the ringleader's family in Madrid is said to hold much of the art that was brought to Spain by the Nazis. Many more families there profited, we are told. The art trade in wartime Spain bears greater scrutiny.

An even greater surprise is the tale of the British dropping Austrian resistance fighters by parachute near Alt Aussee, the salt mine where the Nazis stored thousands of looted works of art. As the Allies advanced on Austria, the SS ordered the mines blown up and flooded if they got too close. Dynamite was in place. Albrecht Gaizwinkler was the Austrian who led a team that built a ring of support among local miners in the last months of the war and fought off German troops long enough to dismantle the explosives that would have destroyed the art. The chapter could have made an entire book. Has the art world found its Oskar Schindler? Could Spielberg be far behind?

One of the pictures that Gaizwinkler and his men saved may have been Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa, which was never known to have been seized by the Nazis, although there is a two and a half year wartime gap concerning its location. British intelligence reports mention the picture's recovery in Alt Aussee, and so do some Americans who were on the scene. The authors sought clarification from the Louvre, and were told that it was "absurd" that the masterpiece barely escaped being dynamited by the SS.

Ultimately, the French admitted that the Mona Lisa was indeed in the salt mine, but it was a sixteenth- or seventeenth-century copy. It is now known that a version of the painting returned to France via Salzburg in 1945 as part of a special shipment of French objects seized by the Nazis. It was later placed on the list of the Musées Nationaux de Recuperation of unclaimed works and presented to the Louvre in 1950. The authors still wonder how such a work (original or not) got to Alt Aussee, and point to much that is still unknown about French and German dealings in art on all levels during the war.

As for Gaizwinkler, who later became a member of Austria's parliament and died in 1979, the British recommended that he be rewarded for his bravery with £250 and a suit of clothes. It is not clear whether he ever got either of those.

Peter Harclerode and Brendan Pittaway, The lost masters: the looting of Europe's treasurehouses (Victor Gollancz, London, 1999) 401 pp, 38 b/w ills, £20 (hb) ISBN 0575052546

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