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Dozens of Nazi-looted artworks are exhibiting in New York

Dozens of Nazi-looted artworks are exhibiting in New York

Posted: Aug 17, 2021 12:40 PM
Updated: Aug 17, 2021 12:40 PM

Dozens of artworks once stolen from Jewish collectors by the Nazis in the 1930s and '40s will be exhibited in New York starting on Friday.

Taken before and during World War II, the paintings being displayed at Manhattan's Jewish Museum include works by European greats Pablo Picasso, Camille Pissarro and Paul Cézanne.

The Nazis are known to have looted and stolen hundreds of thousands of artworks in total -- often from Jewish collectors, gallerists and families fleeing persecution. Though some of the pieces were later recovered and returned to their owners or their descendants, many remain missing or are the subject of ongoing legal battles.

In their introduction to the show, curators Darsie Alexander and Sam Sackeroff described the pillaging and subsequent recovery of artworks during World War II as "one of the most dramatic stories of 20th-century art."

"Artworks that withstood the immense tragedy of the war survived against extraordinary odds, escaping through both planned efforts and unforeseen opportunity," they wrote. "Many exist today as a result of great personal risk and ingenuity. These objects ... have often traveled great distances, passing through many hands."

Featured among the more than 50 artworks in the show, "Afterlives: Recovering the Lost Stories of Looted Art," are two Henri Matisse paintings that once belonged to the Jewish gallerist Paul Rosenberg. Both painted in 1939, "Daisies" and "Girl in Yellow and Blue with Guitar" were taken from a bank vault in Bordeaux, France, where they had been stored for safekeeping. The latter artwork had even been part of Nazi commander Hermann Goering's personal collection before being recovered and returned to Rosenberg after the war.

The New York exhibition also includes items once stolen from Jewish art collector David David-Weill, who had more than 2,000 artworks seized during the occupation, and a collage by German artist Kurt Schwitters that features Nazi customs stamps and administrative labels.

Recovered history

Although the Nazis prohibited the production of modern art, the regime profited from its sale and even exhibited looted works to promote nationalist values. Included in the forthcoming show is Jewish artist Marc Chagall's "Purim," a painting featured in the Nazis' infamous 1937 propaganda exhibition "Degenerate," which was staged to demonstrate the supposed threat modern art posed to German identity.

In addition to paintings and drawings, "Afterlives" will also feature 80 examples of Jewish ceremonial art, such as candelabrums and spice boxes -- some of which had previously been taken from plundered synagogues. Most of the items going on display have been loaned from museums around the US, though others are from the Jewish Museum's own 30,000-item collection.

As well as exploring the items' seizure and restitution, the exhibition will consider how objects crossed borders to end up in private collections and art institutions around the world. According to a museum press release, photographs and archival documents will reveal how artworks passed through "distribution centers, sites of recovery and networks of collectors."

There have been several exhibitions of recovered Nazi-looted art in recent years. In 2017, more than 400 of the 1,400 artworks discovered at the home of Cornelius Gurlitt, the late son of a collector who dealt art for the Nazis, went on show at the Bundeskunsthalle museum in Bonn, Germany, and the Kunstmuseum Bern in Switzerland.

More recently, in 2018, the Louvre in Paris exhibited over 30 French-owned artworks from Germany in the hope of reuniting them with their rightful owners.

"Afterlives: Recovering the Lost Stories of Looted Art," runs from Aug. 20, 2021 to Jan. 9, 2022.

Top image: Max Pechstein, "Landscape," 1912

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