New research on ancient artifacts looted by the Nazis

When the Nazis invaded Greece in 1941, Julius Ringel, a major general in the German army, played an active role in initiating illegal excavations on the island of Crete, where Minoan culture had flourished over 3 000 years earlier.

The land was rich in artifacts of the island’s cultural heritage and Ringel, often aided by his troops, took away all manner of ceramics, vases, pieces of statuary, some for his own benefit and others to be returned to German museums as booty. of war.

Ringel, commander of the Fifth Mountain Division, also looted previously discovered ancient treasures. He confiscated antiquities from Villa Ariadne, the former home of British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans, which he converted into division headquarters. He stole others from a locked room in the old palace of Knossos, a five-acre archaeological site that was the center of Minoan culture, experts say.

“Army officers such as Ringel were not only excavating and looting antiquities for their personal wealth, but they were also responsible for the destruction of antiquities, in Crete, Macedonia, Tiryns, in Assini and Samos,” said Vassilios Petrakos, a scholar who is curator of antiquities. and general secretary of the Archaeological Society of Athens.

Although the cinematic exploits of Indiana Jones in the 1980s provided a popular and fictional vision of a Nazi thirst for antiques, the art world understandably focused much more attention on the seizure of Jewish art.

But the subject of the Nazis’ role in looting antiquities is gaining more and more attention, thanks in part to the work of scholars unraveling the mysteries of what happened to objects that were excavated or seized eight years ago. decades.

Last fall, for example, “The Past in Shackles,” a five-volume study of the looting of antiquities in Greece during World War II, written by Petrakos, was published.

“Research has intensified considerably in many countries, including the United States, Germany, Italy, France, Poland and Greece,” said Irene Bald Romano, professor of anthropology at the University of Arizona and Curator of Mediterranean Archeology at the Arizona State Museum.

Symposia and conferences on Nazi looting of antiquities have been held in several cities in recent years, including one by the College Art Association, which presented a panel on the topic at its annual conference last February.

“The studies that have been done so far are really scratching the surface,” Romano said in a phone interview.

Romano is co-editor of the upcoming “The Fate of Antiquities in the Nazi Era”, a special online issue of RIHA, the journal of the International Association of Research Institutes in the History of Art, which will be produced in association with the Getty Research Institute and the Central Institute for Art History in Munich. The issue is expected to be published later this year.

“Antiquities haven’t received the kind of thorough research it deserves into the fate of Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Etruscan, Near Eastern and Egyptian antiquities stolen by the Nazis,” said Claire Lyons, curator of antiquities. at the Getty museum. “We need to focus our efforts more on World War II.”

The passage of time has made it difficult for scholars today to quantify the extent of the looting of antiquities that took place during World War II, whether in Greece, Italy or the Middle East, primarily in Egypt.

“A full account of what was stolen does not exist and is no longer possible,” Petrakos said, referring to the situation in Greece. “The looting was carried out by the Germans and the Italian military who stole the museums and the finds from the excavations. We don’t even know the quantity of objects that were found in these excavations.

Tracking the objects is complicated by the fact that the looting took place at a time when the antiquities market was booming, especially in Germany, Switzerland and France, including occupied Paris.

These days, experts say, Germany has been quite responsive to requests to repatriate looted antiquities, though it’s unclear whether any may still reside in its museums as determining the full history of the artifacts elders can be so difficult.

“The Germans have been very open about their collections, have created databases to make information and archives from their collections accessible, have conducted provenance research in public museums and have returned many works of art”, Romano said. “The situation is not perfect, but Germany has a high standard for museums when it comes to provenance issues, especially during the Nazi period.”

While minor excavations have taken place under German supervision across Greece, there have been major excavations in the Thessaly region of northern Greece, Petrakos said. The Thessaly excavations, he said, were organized by Alfred Rosenberg, the Nazi theorist, who headed the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg, which looted art, archives and libraries across Europe.

Heinrich Himmler, the head of the Gestapo and the SS, also began excavations in Greece under the auspices of his Ahnenerbe (Ancestral Heritage), with the aim of proving that the Germans were part of an Aryan race and the heirs of ancient Greek culture.

In Italy, some antiquities were exported to Germany under the direct authority of Mussolini. In Greece, in anticipation of the Nazi invasion in April 1941, museums began hiding objects six months before. Some works have been placed in caves, crypts or buried in gardens to protect them from bombardments and looting. Some statues were placed horizontally in trenches filled with sand and sealed with cement. Gold coins and museum catalogs, considered valuable inventories of what the institutions had held, were sent to the vaults of the Bank of Greece.

“The concealment of antiquities has only been successful for major museums, those in Athens, Olympia, Delphi, Thessaloniki and Chalkis,” Petrakos said. “Small museums, with the exception of Nafplio, were not properly protected and many antiquities were stolen.”

Eleni Pipelia, an archaeologist at the Greek Ministry of Culture, said a sculptor she knew told her that during the war she created fake antiquities and sold them to the occupying Germans, aiming to satisfy their need to bring home antiques and raise money for the resistance.

Another hero of the preservation of Greek antiquities was Nikolaos Plato, the director of the Heraklion Archaeological Museum in Crete, which, at personal risk, was known to bicker with the Germans to prevent their plunder.

Plato, who died in 1992, kept an inventory of the objects Ringel had taken from the Heraklion museum. Four years ago, based in part on Plato’s research and reports, the University of Graz in Austria returned to the museum 26 antiquities that had been taken away by Ringel, according to Georgia Flouda, curator of the museum of prehistoric antiquities and minoans.

An establishment, the Pfahlbau Museum in Unteruhldingen returned more than 13,000 artifacts from Thessaly – pottery fragments, small clay figurines, stone tools, animal bones, excavation documents and photos, which are now in the reserves of the National Archaeological Museum of Athens, according to Kostas Nikolentzos, head of the museum’s department of prehistoric Egyptian, Cypriot and Near Eastern antiquities.

“The restitution started in 1951 and ended in 2014,” he said. The objects were not put on public display, he said, in part because many were in poor condition when excavated.

Dr Maria Lagogianni-Georgakarakos, director emeritus of the museum, said the length of the repatriation process was influenced by Germany’s split at the end of the war. “Documents and antiquities were distributed to various locations in East and West Germany,” she said. “The director of the Pfahlbau museum explained that it took two decades for the research into the origins of antiquities to be completed.”

The focus on the looting of Nazi antiquity comes as museums around the world face increased pressure to examine objects originally acquired by colonizers and occupying forces from times long before World War II. world.

“Greece has been plundered since the Persian Wars,” Petrakos said.

Elizabeth Marlowe, associate professor of ancient and medieval art at Colgate University and an expert on antiquities looting and repatriation, said: ‘The British Museum, as well as many European national museums, is full of objects that have been seized in various circumstances. colonial territories and other European spheres of influence around the world.

While antiquities looted by the Nazis were repatriated or returned to their original owners, many were sold or donated to major museums around the world.

The Getty has two antiquities – a bronze statuette of a woman and a carnelian gemstone, which were returned after being sold to a dealer who acquired works for Hitler, according to Lyons, the museum’s curator of antiquities. The works are now on display at the Getty Villa.

Victoria Reed, curator of provenance at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, said she discovered the museum had three classical sculptures that had been returned to a collector after being confiscated by the Nazis and then returned – a bust portrait of a statesman or philosopher and a young satyr, both now in storage, and a relief sculpture, which is on display.

“Unlike Old Master paintings, many antiques are extremely difficult to find,” she said. “They are not attributable to any particular artist and the criteria, including a descriptive title, dimensions and conditions may change drastically over a short period, with losses or additions.”

But Reed said the search was getting easier. “Many books and catalogs are increasingly accessible through online digitization services. The University of Heidelberg, the Getty Research Institute and the Berlin State Museums have collaborated to make the contents of thousands of auction catalogs from Germany, Austria and Switzerland available. Photo archives and digitized archives of Nazi and allied organizations are available online.

Flouda, the curator of the Heraklion museum who researched German excavations in Crete, said she was concerned that those tracking what happened to the looted antiquities still did not have full access to the research undertaken by some German and Austrian academics.

“We don’t have all the evidence and we are not always able to find out which documents are hidden in Germany and Austria,” she said. “But very often new documents appear and we cannot rule out the possibility that there were other excavations that we are not aware of.”

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