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Building Hermann Göring’s Art Collection

[“Recovering Hidden Primary Resources: Harnessing the power of new technologies for a new generation of History scholarship,” American Historical Association 2002 Meeting, San Francisco, January 3-6, 2002 presentation draft by Anne Rothfeld]

We know Hermann Goering as Prime Minister to Prussia, head of the Luftwaffe, director of the Four-Year Economic Plan, and Hitler’s successor.  Goering was also the creator of the largest plundering efforts in history.  Having a multifaceted personality and with a bourgeois background, Goering prided himself as being an aristocrat early in his career.  During the 1920s, Goering’s desire to acquire art grew, and after becoming a Reichstag delegate in 1928, he received significant sums of money bribes from industrialists.  The most interesting part of this story is the extraordinary amount of time Göring spent in viewing confiscated art works, especially during the crucial years of World War II.   He made trips all around Europe, much of the time displacing his staff, solely to visit an art dealer who had a piece or object which Göring wanted to acquire.  No matter what the business was at hand, Göring found time to visit a dealer or an auction house to consider a purchase of something new.  Hermann Göring had no true artistic judgment, accepted this weakness, and surrounded himself with knowledgeable German art dealers.

Three important characteristics of Goering included his strong desire to possess art pieces, no matter the medium, and he went to no limits to add to his collection.  Second was his great desire for wealth, a surprising trait for a man who had unlimited financial means and resources at his disposal and a trait that went against Nazi ideology.  No matter the amount of money, he always bargained to obtain the lowest sale price.  He did not like parting with his money.  Last, Göring wanted to maintain the appearance of “correctness” and not display any item that had been confiscated.  Yet this proved to be hypocritical on his part.  Göring loved displayed his art in his home, Carin Hall, calling himself a Renaissance man. 

The hidden resource:

In November 1944, The Roberts Commission formed an Art Looting Investigation Unit (ALIU) with the financial assistance of the Office of Strategic Services.  These fine art professionals hired were tasked to collect and disseminate information regarding the confiscation and transfer by the enemy art properties in Europe, and to collect and disseminate information on individuals and organizations involved in the selling and purchasing of looted artworks.  “The idea of investigating Nazi looting not only appealed to the RC [Roberts Commission] but fit in well with the OSS’s counterintelligence operation which was compiling dossiers on Nazi agents on the Continent who might be a threat after the German military forces had been defeated. The OSS,…, was interested in tracing and preventing the flow of assets to places of refuge where they might be used to finance the postwar survival of Nazism.”   War crimes tribunal lawyers used these reports as evidence.

What developed from the series of interrogations regarding Goring and his collection was the “Consolidated Interrogation Report No. 2, The Goring Collection.”  Theodore Rousseau, Jr. authored CIR in September 1945 shows that Goering laid out magnificent, detailed plans to cloak the truth of his looting efforts, and to fulfill a quest of acquiring great pieces.  The ALIU report shows that Goring was ruthless and devious, stole prized collections, and paid for his acquisitions dishonestly, if he paid at all.  The interrogation report shows endless examples of corruption, and for the Germans to rationalize their actions: they were only protecting the art, and they were simply following orders.  In his report, Rousseau’s analysis of Goering and his collection “dispels any illusion which might remain about goring as the ‘best’ of the Nazis. In this, the one pursuit in which he might have shown himself to be in fact a different type of man, he was the prototype of all the worst in National Socialism. He was cruel, grasping, deceitful and hypocritical, well suited to take his place with Hitler, Himmler, Goebbels and the rest.” (CIR No. 1, p. 176.)

Origin and character of the Göring collection

            During the interwar period, and after the Nazis came to power in Germany, Goering and Hitler planned two large art collections, one for Hitler’s museum in Linz, Austria, the other the Hermann Goering Collection, to later be presented to the German nation.  As many were fleeing Nazi Germany, and the Nazis banned the exportation of paper money, others began to turn their investments into art that by 1939 could be taken out of Germany as personal property.  Art became cash for black marketers and Nazis who used it as a safe asset.

            Goering collected on a large scale.  In the mid-1930s, Goring indulged himself in collecting outlandish items including rare animals and toy trains.  Other acquisitions included Roman architectural fragments to modern German paintings, tapestries, objets d’art, and jewelry, with his tastes leaning towards female nudes, portraits, and large altarpieces.  By 1937, Göring’s art collection and operations became more organized through the professional services of Walter Andres Hofer. 

Hofer, a German art dealer, became Director of the Reichsmarschall’s collection and Goering’s chief confidential operator.  Hofer is responsible for many of the confiscation and looting methods used, and due to his influence, Goering’s art collection assumed its form.  According to Hofer, once he was ordered to begin acquiring for this museum, there was a so-called finders-keepers agreement between the Fuhrer and the Reichsmarschall.  Hofer was also under the impression that funds for purchasing came from the state.  Fräulein Gisela Limberger was Goering’s private secretary and kept the records of the Goering Collection.  Bruno Lohse, Deputy Director of the Einsatzstab Rosenberg in Paris, was Goering’s personal representative to the ERR.

The first rounds of Nazi confiscations began in Austria after the Anschluss.  The collections of Vienna’s prominent families were the first to be taken by the Nazis, and those who stayed were required to register personal property with the local police.  Exit visas and taxes were soon paid with to Nazis with art works.  After the occupation of the Netherlands and France, Goring established the ERR, the official Nazi arm confiscating Jewish art collections and collections other prominent families.  The ERR became the example of a finely tuned plundering operation.  The ALIU report documents that Goring visited the Jeu de Paume at least a dozen times in 1941 and another five times in 1942, handpicking items for the Linz Museum, for his collection, and items to be exchanged.  Goering utilized confiscated degenerate art, modern and Impressionist picture forbidden by Nazi ideology, in a bartering system in order to acquire important German pieces without using foreign currency.  In the ALIU report, eighteen such exchanges between March 1941 through November 1943 are documented, listing the degenerate items, what they were traded for, and for whom. 

Personnel working with and for Göring

Walter Andreas Hofer began his career as a small Berlin art dealer with his brother-in-law, and came to meet Goering when Hofer was selling pictures.  By 1937, Hofer had replaced Binder as the Reichsmarschall’s chief art adviser with the following agreement: Hofer could remain as an independent dealer while acting as Goering’s agent with the right of keeping an item for himself should Goering not like the piece.  This proved to be advantageous for Hofer: he had the protection and support of the second most important person in the Reich, and his newly found status opened doors to art collections anywhere in the Reich and the occupied territories.  Hofer also used this status to promise protection to those being prosecuted in exchange for apart of or an entire art collection that he or Goering desired.  Hofer had ample opportunity to travel and could tap into a constant source of foreign currencies.  His attendance to auctions was mainly to track current pricing trends, occasionally to purchase an item for the Collection.

            Walter Bornheim, art dealer and Director of the Galerie für Alte Kunst in Munich, purchased numerous artworks on Goering’s behalf since he was under Goering’s protection.  Kajetan Mühlmann held the title “The Special Commissioner for the Safekeeping of Works of Art in the Occupied Territories,” and acted as special purchaser for Goering in Berlin, Vienna, and Warsaw.  Dr. Walter Borchers, employed through the ERR, devoted his time to researching and cataloging the newly acquired art pieces.  Karl Haberstock was a Berlin art dealer and was active in the occupied territories, selling art works to Hitler and Goering.  Karl Kress was the photographer assigned to the ERR.  Aloys Miedl, a banker and speculator who provided some financing to Goering and acquired artworks of interest to Goering.

Hofer’s main duties included the cataloging, storage, and transporting of each item acquired, and the Goering Collection’s then form owes largely to Hofer.  He also kept the collection’s records in a meticulous manner: recording amount paid for each picture, ornament, sculpture or piece of furniture; market value of piece; what the piece was sold or exchanged for.  Hofer relied heavily upon others to build the Reichsmarschall’s collection such as Sepp Angerer whose specialty were rugs and tapestries and used confiscated degenerate art to obtain pieces.  Kajetan Mühlmann plundered Poland and the Netherlands, eliminating any traces of Polish culture.  Gottlieb Reber proved to be an effective buyer in Italy.  Bruno Lohse, a German art dealer and liaison to the ERR, was given a Luftwaffe uniform for easier travel in the Reich and her occupied territories.  Lohse is known for bringing the Dutch Goudstikker Collection to Goering’s attention.  The collection consisted of Renaissance and Eastern art paintings, numbering over a thousand pieces and worth several millions of dollars.  Goering confiscated all of the items for under a million. 

Another dichotomy of Goering was his personal interest in his staff’s work. Appearing expansive and friendly in his manner to his employees, Goering basically distrusted everyone, not taking any one person into his confidence, and by war’s end, had all of his activities under his direct control.  There was a verbal rule among the ERR civilian staff that no one held conversations about their employment and duties outside of what was necessary.  By creating this feeling of distrust, Goering felt comfortable that no one on his staff would turn against him.  Instead, and found during interrogations, the staff disliked each other and had the tendency to gossip.  Limberger accused Hofer of concealing art transactions from her.  Hofer accused Lohse for trying to take away the Director’s position.  Miedl accused Hofer of turning him over to the Gestapo. 

Goering made use of representatives in the occupied territories outside of Germany, and these individuals were used by the Reichsmarschall to arrange payments, storage, and transportation of objects acquired for his Collection.

Operations: exchanges and sales

            From the beginning Goering considered confiscated property as a main source for his Collection.  Approximately fifty percent of his collection consist of works of art from “enemies of the Reich,” with the ERR alone supply over 700 objects.  “Goering’s attitude towards confiscations was characteristic. He fought shy of crude, undisguised looting; but he wanted the works of art, and so he took them, always managing to find a way of giving at least the appearance of honesty, by a token payment or promise thereof to the confiscation authorities. Although he and his agents never had an official connection with the German confiscation organizations, they nevertheless used them to the fullest extent possible.”  The routine for acquiring materials, especially in France, Holland, and Belgium, was when the German Foreign Currency Authority “discovered an art collection in the vaults of one of the banks which came under their authority, they ‘froze’ it and then advised Göring’s” civilian staff, usually Hofer.  If Hofer or another one of Goering’s agents were to be in Paris, “he visited the collection in the bank and indicated what he considered desirable for Goering.”  The Foreign Currency Authority created a record of this transaction and the chosen objects were later to sent to the Jeu de Paume for cataloging by the ERR staff and for review by Göring.  The collections of Wassermann, Seligmann, Paul Rosenberg, and Rothschild were all acquired in this manner.  (Report.)

Important parts of the Collection are gifts to the Reichsmarschall from friends and other important Nazis.  These gifts can be analogous to purchases.  Purchases were the most important aspect of the Goering Collection yet there were no established procedures for making such payments.  Hofer was encouraged by Goering to take over, or in the documentation, “to purchase” already confiscated collections in France

            Since Goering preferred to receive art works as presents, he also concerned himself with these gifts suiting his tastes and fitting in with the current holdings.  “When [Goering] visited dealers in different countries, he picked out first the objects which he wanted to acquire immediately, and then what one might call a reserve, which was paid for but left in the hands of Hofer, Bergheim, or Angerer. Later, when prominent Nazis wished to give him a present, they consulted Gritzbach, who put them in touch with one of the dealers from whom they could buy a work of art for the Reichsmarschall, feeling confident that it would find favor, since he had already chosen it himself…. These gifts simply represented a credit to the Goering Kunstfond (Art Fund), into which the payments were deposited.”  (Report.)

            The Paris art market was the most active during the war years and the pieces were sold as extravagant, inflated prices.  The French dealers took advantage of the ignorant Germans.  Goering himself visited Paris at least twenty times and mainly visited the Jeu de Paume.  Holland was the next most popular source of art acquisitions for Goering.  He visited the country often and took advantage of Holland’s art richness.  The German occupation revived the Dutch art market largely due to the Nazis and Germans having unlimited amounts of money to spend.  Purchases were unlimited for those willing to buy.

Unlike France, Holland did not have important Jewish collections to confiscate.   The parallel organization to the ERR in Holland was the Schmidt-Staehler organization which had no emphasis on a particular style of art.  And in Belgium, Goering’s most important acquisition there was the Emile Renders collection.  The Belgians only dealt with the Germans through auction sales, and there were no collaborationist groups in operation in this country.  Goering and his agents considered Belgium as an extension to the Dutch market.  The story behind the Renders Collection is “important for two reasons; first, because it is the most important collection of Flemish primitives in private hands, and secondly, because Renders has presented to the Allied Restitution Authorities, since the defeat of Germany, an elaborate report stating that he was forced to sell his pictures to Goering and demanding their return.”  Renders maintains that he did not want to sell his collection but was placed under duress by Goering’s agents, and once the collection was sold he was paid in Belgian and Dutch paper money which was quickly depreciating.  Later after the war and after a further analysis of the evidence presented by Renders and by interrogations of the ALIU it seems that Renders was not necessarily the victim he portrays himself to be.  Renders probably used the pressure of selling in order to influence the inflation of the art prices. 

            The Italian market was also vulnerable to confiscations by the Germans with Goering’s agents making the majority of the purchases.  Italy was also full of dealers who took advantage of taking money from their German Allies, and German agents bought items ranging from paintings to furniture.  Hofer made his exclusive deals through Count Alessandro Contini Bonacossi.  Transportation of these items was accomplished by the use of Goering’s special train, and these objects stored in the German Embassy in Rome awaiting the train.  By May 1942, the Italian government took notice of the exportation and enacted a law forbidding the transfer of art works outside of Italy.  Soon, Goering’s agents had difficulty shipping out the purchases and made diplomatic agreements through the Ambassador for their release. 

            Switzerland, the only neutral country involved in Goering’s acquisition efforts, offered a large market to auction “degenerate art,” art works that were deemed not suitable for the Nazi Government.  In 1938, Theodor Fischer, a Swiss art dealer in Lucerne, was a dealer auctioning these pieces.  Fischer was one of the very few dealers operating on an international scale, and the Germans worked with him since their assets could be concealed in Swiss accounts and Swiss transactions. 

            Exchanges were used as one of the most important significant aspect of forming Goering’s collection.  Goering considered property taken, or confiscated, by the Nazi government as ideological reasons to be his own, and to dispose of as he saw fit.  Goering would also resort to any trick or bribe in order to get exactly what he wanted.  Once these exchanges were completed and each identified of those collaborators outside of Germany who were interested in becoming an accomplice for one’s personal profit.  Evidence points to Hofer and Wendland as originating the exchange idea.  Letters from Hofer to Goering refer to and describe confiscated pictures as desirable for exchange purposes.  Why establish elaborate plans for exchanges?  Mainly the lack of and need for foreign currency, and art was an alternative to money for Goering.  And these confiscated paintings that cost Goering nothing were valueless to him since he considered them as degenerate art.  For example, in 1941 an exchange between Fischer and Goering occurred where Fischer gave five Cranachs valued at 150,000 Swiss francs and Goering in return gave two dozen impressionists including Degas, Van Gogh, and Renoir, all confiscated art works from prominent French Jewish collections approximately valued at over 1 million Swiss francs.  One thing to keep in mind is that as these paintings were taken from the French, and considered of little value to Goering and other Nazi officials, Hofer and Fischer were notorious for inflating the appraisals at least 20 times of the Paris price.  These exchanges continued through 1944. 

            Goering sold many artworks from his collection even though he had access to unlimited funds.  Fischer encouraged him on several occasions to go through with the sale working through Haberstock in order to make a profit.  Some of the objects that Goering sold at auction or on the general market generally were obtained through his confiscation group, for example items for the Dutch Goudstikker Collection were made available on the open market. 

            In his financial dealings, Goering, as a businessman, was hardheaded and scrupulous.  He acquired just about everything he wanted but would only pay the lowest possible price; he never failed to bargain and often purchased second-rate objects due to the low selling price.  In addition, he kept his dealings in art matters a secret in order to maintain the appearance of “correctness.”  He signed all payments personally, and he ordered the strictest of discretion from his staff.  Only Hofer and Frau Limberger knew some of the details of Goering’s account books.  The general accounts were separated into three funds: private, separate, and military.  The private contained Goering’s personal fortune from his salaries and estates, and used the monies for him and his family’s personal expenses.  The separate fund supported large receptions and business functions.  The military fund covered Goering’s expenses as Reichsmarschall, and his Special Train.  The Kunstfond, the art fund with an average balance of two million Reich marks, was used for all of the expenses of acquiring and maintaining his art collection.  The Kunstfond was directly under Goering’s authority, with Frau Limberger keeping the records, and he took full advantage of his position by freezing accounts consisting of artworks that he desired.  He continued to solicit and accept bribes from industrialists to replenish his beloved Kunstfond

            Goering’s use and abuse of different currencies is an important aspect of his selling and purchasing operation.  “He took advantage of every loophole which was afforded by the German law as it extended over conquered Europe. It can be said to have been his chief means of camouflaging the enormous majority of his transactions, which were made possible only by the war and never could have been carried out under normal conditions. Only by detailed study of this questions will it be possible to draw accurately the tenuous line which divides looting from legal purchase.” (Report, p. 163.)

In order to make his shadiest dealings seem as regular business practice, Goering insisted on German thoroughness: all receipts and bills presented to Goering, all receipts signed by Goering, and every minute detail recorded.  These detailed accounts provided to the ALIU a detailed picture of art looting between 1939 and 1945.  Last, Goering made “a policy of ostentatiously refusing gifts from anyone who was indebted to him for protection against the anti-Semitic laws or help in obtaining a visa to a neutral country. However if the gift offered was an attractive one, he usually managed to acquire it by exchange.” (Report, p. 158.)

Conclusion

Goering intended to have his collection be a monument to his name.  In 1939, he acquired approximately 200 objects; by 1945, it was over 2,000 individual objects including over 1,300 paintings.  Goering maintained the appearance of legality and refused to associate himself with undisguised looting.  He continually deceived and used the system for his benefit.  In 1940, in Paris, he used the German Military government to cover his first looting expeditions.  His dealers cheated customs authorities, using diplomatic pouches for transportation, and outright breaking laws in both occupied and neutral countries. 

Yes this is a hidden historical source displaying another dimension of Göring yet his tactics show that he was deceitful and hypocritical like his colleagues in the Nazi party.  This report dispels the illusion of Goering being a “better” Nazi than the others.  The secondary literature does not address Göring’s interest and great desires in art collecting.

Old and new technologies: the Holocaust Records Project (HRP)

To address the dual problems of researchers’ demand for records and associated preservation problems with overuse of fragile World War II records documenting the locating and restituting of confiscated art, NARA created the Holocaust Records Program, HRP, and assigned it to identify, preserve, describe, and microfilm over 10,000 linear feet of NARA’s records, several millions of pages, regarding Nazi looted art and cultural property.  These materials cross many record groups of U.S. Government civilian agencies, U.S. military branches, and U.S. Occupation Military Government, OMGUS.  The concept for HRP began last summer when NARA sponsored a meeting with 25 representatives from the art world to identify NARA’s key and relevant holdings concerning art provenance and restitution claims research.  HRP’s initiative currently covers over 15 different records groups, and over 200 individual series.  Our progress, closing of records, and microfilm availability can be monitored on NARA’s Art Provenance web page.  These WWII records were created for specific purposes: to protect art from being damaged or stolen by the Allied military forces; to prevent art from being used as a financial asset by the Axis powers; to keep art from being sent to a safehaven in the neutral countries, Latin America, or the United States; and to restitute looted art.  Highlighting some series will provide a sense of the breath of information contained in NARA’s holdings that fill the scope of HRP’s task.

Our first completed project involves the Office of Strategic Services’ Art Looting Investigation Unit, ALIU.  Available on one roll of microfilm, M1782, these detailed and consolidated interrogation reports were compiled from ALIU officers’ interrogations and analysis of collected documents containing locations of Nazi looted art; Nazi attempts to sell looted art; movement of art into the Reich; purchasing and selling of confiscated art; and names of dealers and agents engaged in acquiring and selling looted art.  The three Consolidated Interrogation Reports describe in detail the activities of the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg, E.R.R., in France, the origins of Hermann Goering’s art collection, and art collected for Adolph Hitler’s planned museum in Linz, Austria.

[Include different series/RGS….]

Why these particular records?  These files expose Germany’s economic and financial growth and decline, her ability to run the war, and the movement of assets in the Reich.  And since the Nazis lacked a useable foreign currency, artworks were used as an alternative to money. 

            HRP’s primary goal is to aid archival research in looted cultural property records.  We are creating specialized finding aids beginning at the series level, and for many record groups, item level descriptions.  This is an indulgence on our part yet specialized finding aids for these items need to be created.  Not only do these inventories assist researchers in their location of archival materials, the inventories help the preservation of the records by saving the researcher from needless rummaging and handling.  We continue to work closely with researchers in identifying additional key series in order to create a more detailed inventory.  Another goal of HRP is to post our inventories and indexes on the Art Provenance web site, and testing the digitalization of popular series as an addition and/or alternative to microfilm.  The project continues working closely with legal officers for greater openness and availability of archival records. 

HRP hopes to provide greater access to the research and historical communities, and to preserve the records.  Thank you.


Sources:

Archival:

Office of Strategic Services, Art Looting Investigation Unit. “Consolidated Interrogation

Report No. 2, The Göring Collection,” by Theodore Rosseau, Jr., Lieutenant, USNR.  OSS/ALIU CIR, 13 September 1945; Records of the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in War Areas, Record Group 239, box 85; National Archives at College Park, College Park, MD (NACP).

Office of Strategic Services, Art Looting Investigation Unit. “Consolidated Interrogation

Report, “Report No. 1, Activity of the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg in France August 1945,” by James Plaut Lieutenant, USNR, OSS/ALIU CIR, 15 August 1945; Records of the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in War Areas, Record Group 239; National Archives at College Park, College Park, MD.

Monographs:

Bewley, Charles.  Hermann Göring and the Third Reich: a biography based on family

and official recordsToronto: Devin-Adair, 1962.

De Jaeger, Charles.  The Linz File: Hitler’s plunder of Europe’s artExeter, England:

Webb & Bower, 1981.

Frischauer, Willi.  The Rise and Fall of Hermann GoeringBoston: Houghton Mifflin,

1951.

Mosley, Leonard.  The Reich Marshal: a biography of Hermann Goering.  Garden City;

New York: Doubleday, 1974.

Nicholas, Lynn H.  The Rape of Europa: the fate of Europe’s treasures in the Third Reich

and the Second World WarNew York: Vintage, 1994.

Petropoulos, Jonathan.  Art as politics in the Third RichChapel Hill; London:

University of North Carolina Press, 1996.

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