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6 Paintings Stolen By The Nazis That We Might Never See Again

Amongst the thousands of artworks stolen by the Nazis, there are some masterpieces it’s a shame we won’t be able to see again.

You might remember the George Clooney film The Monuments Men (2014), where a group of Allies are determined to protect and rescue all the artworks stolen by the Nazis during WWII. In this case, though, the truth is even better than fiction, since the real Monuments Men did the impossible to retrieve all the cultural treasures that had been stolen and even condemned to be destroyed for not meeting Nazi standards. 

Most of the plunder happened under the orders of a German organization known as the Kunstschutz, or "art protection." It was created during WWI in reaction to international pressure that claimed that the German army didn’t care about art. So, Kunstschutz “showed” the world they definitely were intent on protecting these works, to the point that during WWII they assigned government funds and resources to take artworks from occupied countries. 

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At the same time, the Monuments Men were already working with Allied intelligence teams to locate the stolen artworks. They managed to retrieve thousands of masterpieces by artists like Michelangelo, Raphael, Picasso, Klimt, and many others. And to this day, their work isn’t over: there's now a foundation that has kept recovering masterpieces thought to be lost forever. Unfortunately, many important are still missing since then, and we might never see them again because they might’ve been destroyed. Here are some of the most important ones:

Portrait of a Young Man (1514), Raphael

Raphael was probably one of the most targeted artists by the Nazis. Though many of his works were returned and are proudly exhibited in great museums, there are some that are still missing. This one was taken from the Czartoryski Museum in Poland. When the German army was about to enter Poland, Prince Augustyn Jozef Czartoryski tried to save as many paintings he could and hid them at one of his properties, but they were found by the Gestapo. Then, in 1945, there was a massive evacuation in Krakow of people trying to escape the Russian offensive. That was when Hans Frank, a high-ranking Nazi official based in Poland, took the painting with him. He was arrested shortly after and killed the following year after being tried at Nuremberg. He never revealed where the painting was.

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Portrait of Trude Steiner (1898), Gustav Klimt

Klimt was another major target of the Gestapo and the Kunstschutz, but not because they loved or appreciated his work: instead, he was seen as a perverted artist whose paintings had to be destroyed. Among the many Klimt works stolen was this posthumous portrait of young Trude Steiner, daughter of Jenny Steiner, a Viennese art collector. The Steiner family managed to flee Austria right before the Nazis took over. The painting was left behind, seized by the Nazis, and later on, sold to an unknown buyer in 1941. There’s no information as to who this person was or where the painting could be now.

The Painter on the Road to Tarascon (1888), Vincent Van Gogh

This painting is one of his last, painted just two years before his death. During the war, this painting that’s thought to be a self-portrait was exhibited at the Kaiser-Friedrich Museum near Magdeburg, Germany. When the Allied offensive became more aggressive, most of the artworks at the museum were taken to be stored at the Stassfurt salt mines art repository. However, in April 1945, the Allies bombed Magdeburg, and this is thought to have caused a terrible fire in the repository that destroyed most of the artworks stored there. In recent years, though, one of the paintings that accompanied Van Gogh’s was found, so there’s still hope this masterpiece might be out there.

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Five Dancing Women [Ballerinas] (late 19th century), Edgar Degas

This lost painting was part of Baron Mor Lipot Herzog's enormous art collection. He was one of the wealthiest and most influential art collectors in all of Europe. Based in Hungary, Herzog’s collection featured more than 2,500 works, including Degas’ "Five Ballerinas." Herzog died in 1934, leaving his entire collection to his widow (who passed in 1940), and later on, his children. Hungary was allied to Germany, and when the government started persecuting Jews in the country, the Herzogs tried hiding their valuable collection in basements and factories, but they were eventually discovered by the Germans. Some members of the family were arrested and taken to concentration camps, while others managed to escape. After the war, the remaining family members, aided by allied governments, retrieved a large part of their collection, but many works are still missing. This Degas, in particular, has not appeared on any records, and no one really knows what happened to it during the war. 

Portrait of a Courtesan (1597), Caravaggio

This portrait by the great Caravaggio belonged to the Kaiser-Friedrich Museum before the war. With the outbreak of the war, the Nazis moved the painting to the Berlin-Friedrichshain Flak tower repository mainly because they believed their later reinforcement of the structures made it a safe place during the aircraft offensive. When the Soviets entered Berlin, they were surprised to find that the valuable Caravaggio wasn’t in the tower, and neither were the many other important artworks stored along with it. At the same time, there was a massive fire in the tower that spread throughout all the premises, killing all hope of finding the painting. However, in 2011, one of the paintings listing in the repository appeared in New York, so there might be a chance to find this masterpiece somewhere.

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Portrait of Young Henry Bernstein (1881), Edouard Manet

Rounding up our list, there is this portrait of Henry Bernstein commissioned by the Bernstein family in the late nineteenth century. The Bernsteins were the wealthy heirs of a French-Jewish family. When the country was occupied, Bernstein managed to flee to the US, where he became active in the war efforts to stop the Nazis. The painting was taken by Nazi troops in 1943, and it has never been found.

The Nazis stole thousands of paintings, sculptures, engravings, and music scores from people they considered enemies of the state.  Luckily, organizations like the Monuments Men have managed to locate and return these pieces to their original owners, but there are still many art treasures whose whereabouts are remain unknown. Perhaps they were destroyed during the war, or perhaps they’re safely exhibited at some big mansion somewhere. Who knows, the only thing we do know is that art and cultural heritage are often forgotten about in times of war.

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