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Looted art

The German museum paintings secretly sold by the British government in 1946

Nearly 80 pictures, including works by Cranach and Kauffmann, were seized from the German embassy in London

London

The British government sold off nearly 80 paintings belonging to Germany’s leading museums at the end of World War II. The works, including pictures by Lucas Cranach and Angelika Kauffmann, had been on loan to the German embassy in London since the 1930s. Declassified documents in the UK National Archives reveal that the works were put into an auction of “Superior Furniture”, fetching less than £5,000 in London in 1946. The money was used to help fund war reparations. The museums were not warned of the impending auction and the origin of the pictures went undisclosed in the auction catalogue. For the first time, we are publishing a full list of the paintings, and naming the buyers (see facing page).

Hitler’s envoy

The story begins in August 1936, when Hitler appointed Nazi foreign affairs advisor Joachim von Ribbentrop as his ambassador in London. On his arrival at the German Embassy, at 7-9 Carlton House Terrace, near Buckingham Palace, Ribbentrop devised ambitious redecoration plans for the Nash-designed buildings, which were leased from the Crown Estate.

Hitler’s architect Albert Speer was called in to advise (with the main staircase being decorated with marble presented by Mussolini). The new ambassador was keen to use art and architecture to project himself as a sophisticated culture-lover, but London society dismissed him as pretentious, with some mocking him as “Ribbensnob”.

Ribbentrop’s wife Annalies, an art history graduate from Munich, wanted to decorate the premises with German paintings. Although some loans had already been arranged with museums in Germany earlier in the 1930s, the Ribbentrops requested dozens of works and the galleries had little choice but to oblige. Altogether 78 paintings were sent from galleries in Berlin, Cologne, Dresden, Munich, Frankfurt, Stuttgart, Düsseldorf and Darmstadt.

In February 1938, Hitler promoted Ribbentrop to foreign minister, with Herbert von Dirksen replacing him as the ambassador in London. Relations with Britain continued to deteriorate, culminating in the declaration of war on 3 September 1939. The following day Germany’s London embassy was put under the jurisdiction of neutral Switzerland.

Aftermath

Following Germany’s defeat on 8 May 1945, Swiss protection of the London embassy ended, and the British were entitled to take over the building as “enemy assets”. Civil servants discussed what to do with the contents, which were mainly to be auctioned to raise money for reparation payments. At Whitehall’s request, the paintings were examined by National Gallery curator Neil MacLaren on 22 August 1945.

According to a Ministry of Works memo of 4 September 1945: “Four pictures have been set aside for consideration by the [Works] Deputy Secretary as to the possibility of them being utilised in Government offices. The Imperial War Museum would like to take over the portraits of Hitler and Goering, also a stone bust of Hitler. The balance of the pictures should be sold. The majority are not of any great value but there are a few German primitives which the National Gallery considers might fetch a good sum.”

However, the fact that most of the paintings belonged to German museums gave rise to concerns and on 24 October 1945 a decision was made to withdraw these from the auction. As the Trading with the Enemy Department (run by the Treasury and the Board of Trade) stressed, no decision had been made on the future of the pictures, but “by taking them out of the sale we are securing a breathing space”.

The general furnishings were openly sold off at an auction held by Knight, Frank & Rutley from 26 November to 10 December 1945. Privately-owned pictures on loan to the embassy were also included. These had belonged to Fritz Jung of Berlin (14 works), the Prussian Academy of Arts in Berlin (6), Ribbentrop’s villa in Dahlem (19), Berlin auctioneer Rudolf Lepke (9) and an unidentified owner in Karlsruhe (28); they fetched a total of £971. A small group of miscellaneous pictures, including a few Nazi works of art were sold.

The dilemma

On 9 January 1946, Lt Col Sir Leonard Woolley (War Office advisor on archaeology) wrote to the UK’s Trading with the Enemy Department, to oppose the sale of the museum paintings, suggesting that it would make his work in Germany restituting looted art more difficult. He argued that “it has been laid down quite categorically that works of art are not to be counted as financial assets available for reparations; therefore the sale of the pictures seems to be ruled out”.

This view was disputed by the Trading with the Enemy Department, which responded that “undoubtedly these pictures are enemy property”. Another official agreed, saying that Woolley was wrong, since only works of art found in Germany should not be taken for reparations. Under the Potsdam Agreement, each country “can keep every kind of German asset within its own jurisdiction, including pictures”.

The Foreign Office expressed its view in a note dated 13 January 1946: “According to strict law works of art, even if the property of the enemy State, may not be appropriated by the other belligerent, but as I understand it we have taken power under the surrender terms to compel the surrender of all German public assets abroad.” This meant that if the paintings were state property then they (or their financial value) would pass to the British government. If the galleries owning the pictures were “non-state” institutions, then they could still be sold, “it being left to the German Government to compensate the private German owners”.

The second auction went ahead as a sale of Superior Furniture held by Curtis & Henson, at 16 Mansfield Street, on 4 to 6 November 1946. No indication was given that the pictures were from the German embassy, on loan from museums.

The most expensive lot was Böcklin’s A Spring Day, from Berlin, which went for £788, but most sold for less than £50 each. The names of the buyers are given in a document in the National Archives, although the lack of Christian names makes it difficult to identify them.

News about the sell-off reached German museums sporadically, and a few only learned of the details after we contacted them last month. Some e­fforts had been earlier made to recover lost pictures. In 1953, Munich’s Bayerische Staatsgemälde­sammlungen contacted the German cultural attaché in London, but was informed that their pictures had been “sold”. In 1991, Stuttgart’s Staatsgalerie approached the German foreign ministry, to be told that there was “no information”. Three works were also re-purchased by the museums which had lost them.

Through extensive research, we have located nine of the 78 paintings, with most of the rest being hidden away in private collections. However, now that the works have been published, it will be difficult to sell them on the open market, unless museums relinquish their interests.

Legality

What is the current legal position? Under the Potsdam Agreement, negotiated by Churchill, Truman and Stalin, each country could keep German assets which fell within their jurisdiction. Had works of art been the property of individual diplomats, who had privileges, this would have been a different situation. Arguably, the British sell-off was legal, although this could be disputed.

However, attitudes have changed over the past decade. Western governments and museums now want to see the return of looted works of art, and the sell-off would be regarded as totally unethical. The 1946 auction appears to be a blot on Britain’s excellent record for restituting works displaced by the war.

As for Ribbentrop, he was tried for war crimes at Nürnberg, and found guilty. He was hanged on 16 October 1946, just three weeks before the auction of the works of art he had chosen to adorn his walls.

In 1955 Germany’s first post-war embassy was established in Belgrave Square. Twelve years later the former embassy building in Carlton House Terrace became the offices of the Royal Society (Pevsner comments that enough of Ribbentrop’s redecoration survived “to chill the blood”).

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 181 June 2007