Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Third Reich's Pillage of European Art and Treasures

The Recovery

Patton, Bradley with stored art
Patton, Bradley & Eisenhower with stored art
After six years of war, the Germans were defeated in the summer of 1945. By wars end, millions were listed among the dead, millions were homeless, and thousands of towns and cities lay in ruin.

Somewhere beneath the rubble lay countless hidden troves of art and treasure. The Nazis had gone to great lengths to hide the objects they had spent years confiscating and hoarding. With the war at an end, it was time for people to begin the process of rebuilding. Some who assisted in recovering lost cultural property in war-torn Europe were the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives (MFA&A) section of the United States and British Armies, often referred to as the Monument Men.

Petropoulos stated that following their arrival in Europe the MFA&A began working to uncover the sites where the Germans had hidden cultural property. Their mission was to recover and help preserve stolen, looted and misplaced artifacts stolen by the Nazis, document their findings and be able to provide evidence to convict those responsible for the looting. The MFA&A was initially unwelcome by many in the army because they were thought to be of little use. Their services became valuable and highly regarded, however.

Polish Monuments Officer & Painting
Polish Monuments Officer & Painting
As they moved throughout the territories previously overrun by the Nazis, the MFA&A found some of Europes most valuable cultural treasures hidden in the most unusual places. Artworks of every conceivable form, value and size were found on farms, in salt mines, empty rail cars, bunkers, and beneath mattresses, among other places. It was a wonder, considering how scattered most of the pieces of art were and the conditions in which they were found, that they were able to recover as many pieces as they did.

In Berchtesgaden, Germany, Göerings art cache, including thousands of paintings was discovered. In Nuremberg, MFA&A officers organized a group to look for lost treasures hidden by the Nazis. In bunkers beneath the Kaiserburg castle, the officers found what one of the biggest finds, next to Göerings collection made by the group. Placed in specially designed copper containers was the Holy Roman regalia, containing the sword of St. Maurice, scepter and Imperial globe.

Recovered Homan Roman relics
Recovered Homan Roman relics

Hundreds of thousands of pieces that were found hidden away were evacuated to areas known as Collecting Points, where valuable objects were stored for protection. Over time, the Collecting Points grew in number to accommodate the influx of newly discovered treasures. In fact, they became more like museums than storage warehouses.

Nicholas wrote that the Unites States Office of Strategic Affairs (OSS), precursor of the Central Intelligence Agency, sent a special team called the Art Looting Investigation Unit, to interrogate Nazi art officials and to analyze their records so that determination of ownership could begin. It would be a process that would last many decades. Eventually, some three million works of art were returned to their countries and owners. It was an unprecedented feat by any standard.

Monument Officers of WWII
Monument Officers of WWII

Despite the MFA&A officers and other Allied Forces efforts, countless art objects, like the Amber Room, have never been found. Many artworks and treasures were destroyed, lost or displaced. On occasion over the years, some of the lost objects have surfaced. However, the likelihood of finding the remaining lost artworks diminishes with time. Many may be lost forever.