United States

Good Policies But A Mixed Record 


When the war was over, the Allied forces created a unit (Monuments, Fine Arts & Archives, the MFA&A) to find the art stolen by the Nazis. Find it they did—stashed away high in the Bavarian Alps, deep in the salt mines in Alt Aussee, Austria, and in other mountainous areas. The ancient practice of victors taking the "Spoils of War" was not accepted by the Allies, most of whom were members of an early 20th-century Hague Convention. Policy was to return art to the country where it had been taken, and in the case of Germany itself, the Allies returned the art that had belonged to German museums that had saved their collections from destruction as the battles and bombing hit home.

While the official policy of the United States was admirable, some individuals in the military helped themselves freely to what treasure they came upon. One G.I. sold two paintings by Albrecht Dürer taken from a German museum to a collector in Brooklyn (recovered in the 1980s in a landmark case, Kunstsammlungen zu Weimar v. Elicofon). Another G.I. marched into the cave supposedly guarded by US forces and made off with medieval treasure from the Church of Quedlinburg, sent it home to Texas, where it turned up after he died in the 1990s in the hands of his brother and sister who tried to secretly sell a magnificent Carolingian manuscript. (William H. Honan, Treasure Hunt). These cases are not unique.

The United States was prosperous after the war, and the art market thrived. Although the horrors of the war and the facts of art theft were widely known, and the U.S. State Department warned museums and dealers not to buy looted art, the art market generally chose not to look too closely for provenance problems. And so we find many cases, even today, where art in the U.S. is claimed by families of people prosecuted, sometimes killed, by the Nazis.

Edouard Manet, In the Conservatory
In hidden storage during the war, and found by the Monuments Fine Arts & Archives unit of the Allies who returned it safely to the Berlin Museums.

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