A souvenir of 1945 reveals Hitler’s ‘mail order’ art looting

An American soldier stationed at Hitler’s Bavarian mountain hideway at the end of World War II looked around for a souvenir. His choice was unveiled in Washington on Thursday: two brown leather-bound albums that could provide new clues to Nazi-looted treasures.

The two albums, unearthed a few weeks ago, contain pictures of art treasures stolen from dealers in Paris after the invasion of France in 1940 and sent to Hitler and Hermann Göring to help them make selections for their personal collections. ”In their leisure time they flipped through them like mail order catalogues,” said Robert Edsel, who helped rescue the books and donated them to the national archives.

Their discovery was hailed by Allen Weinstein, the historian who heads the archives, as ”one of the most significant finds related to Hitler’s premeditated theft of art and other cultural treasures to be found since the Nuremberg trials”.

He added: ”Documents such as these may play a role in helping to solve some mysteries and, more importantly, helping victims recover their treasures.”

In the national archives headquarters on Thursday one of the albums was on show lying between two cushions. An official, wearing white gloves, gingerly turned the pages with a letter-opener to show black-and-white shots of the looted paintings.

Edsel, who retired early from the oil industry to devote himself to the hunt for the missing artworks, said most of the paintings in the recovered albums, including works by Boucher and Robert, had been found in the immediate aftermath of the war. He had still to determine how many of the artefacts in the two albums were still missing.

Hitler had planned to establish the world’s greatest exhibition, the Führer Museum, in his Austrian hometown of Linz. The Nazis confiscated works from Jewish art collectors and dealers in France such as the Rothschilds, the Veil-Picards, Alphonse Kann, the Seligmanns and Georges Wildenstein, and shipped them by rail from Paris to Germany.

The German unit responsible for hunting down works of art is believed to have put together 85 albums of works from throughout Europe. Until Thursday it was believed that only 35 of them had survived. They formed part of the evidence at the Nuremberg trials.

Edsel, the author of Rescuing Da Vinci, said the soldier who found the two albums had been based in the Berchtesgaden area, where Hitler had his Eagle’s Nest retreat, in May 1945 and ”tossed them into his rucksack as souvenirs of the war and they had sat in his attic”.

After his death the family did not realise their significance, but news of the albums had reached Edsel’s organisation, the Monuments Men Foundation for Preservation of Art. The organisation was set up to honour those who searched for the lost treasures after the war and to continue their work.

The two albums deal with early confiscated works and are numbered six and eight in the 80-plus series.

Edsel said he hoped discovery of the albums would encourage others who had albums or other information to come forward.

Artwork stolen by the Nazis continues to be a source of dispute. This week the US Supreme Court dismissed a lawsuit against Elizabeth Taylor over her ownership of a Van Gogh that a Jewish woman, Margarete Mauthner, lost when she fled Germany in 1939. – Guardian Unlimited Â

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