An Amer­i­can sol­dier stands amid Nazi loot­ed art kept in the town of Ellin­gen, Ger­many, April 241945

Nation­al Archives and Records Admin­is­tra­tion (NARA)

**Come hear Lisa Barr speak with James McAuley at our vir­tu­al Unpack­ing the Book event, Lisa Barr and James McAuley — Art, Assim­i­la­tion, and Reclaim­ing a Stolen Lega­cy, which will be pre­sent­ed in part­ner­ship with the Jew­ish Muse­um and Tablet Mag­a­zine on Mon­day, April 11th at 7 PM ETclick here for free tickets!**

It was June 1991; back then I was a young jour­nal­ist just out of grad­u­ate school. I was assigned by my edi­tor at a women’s mag­a­zine to cov­er an exhib­it at the Art Insti­tute of Chica­go called, Degen­er­ate Art: The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Ger­many.” When I walked into the muse­um, my breath caught in my throat and chills cov­ered my arms; I knew I was not just report­ing any sto­ry, I had found my sto­ry — the one that would for­ev­er change the course of my career and become a part of my soul. I would soon piv­ot from jour­nal­ist to author and art lover, con­duct­ing obses­sive research bent on expos­ing a top­ic that is still front-page news near­ly eighty years after the Holocaust.

As a daugh­ter of a Holo­caust sur­vivor, I nev­er knew (until I explored the museum’s provoca­tive exhib­it of more than 150 works of Nazi-loot­ed art) the inten­si­ty and sheer obses­sive­ness in which the Third Reich con­fis­cat­ed, destroyed, and plun­dered upwards of 600,000 works of art from pri­vate col­lec­tions, muse­ums, gal­leries, schools, and stu­dios. It was a rob­bery on the grand­est scale that began in Ger­many and spread to become an all-encom­pass­ing cul­tur­al pil­lag­ing of Europe’s treasures.

Hitler and his offi­cials were deter­mined to destroy those artists who did not com­ply with the Aryan ide­al of art, par­tic­u­lar­ly the avant-garde, includ­ing Cubists, Sur­re­al­ists, Dadaists, Sur­re­al­ists, and espe­cial­ly the Ger­man Expres­sion­ists who divid­ed into two groups of artists—Die Brucke (The Bridge) and Der Blaue Reit­er (The Blue Rid­er) — emerg­ing in the ear­ly 1900s. Their works were for­bid­den because of their deeply provoca­tive free-think­ing style. And yet, it was no sur­prise that this pas­sion­ate move­ment of art was cel­e­brat­ed and tak­ing the rest of the world by storm.

Hitler’s attack on art was sim­ple and fierce: destroy, steal, sell. Sup­ply stores were shut down, gal­leries were board­ed up, paint­ings were burned, muse­ums were closed, teach­ers and cura­tors were stripped of their jobs. Artists were sub­ject to pub­lic ridicule and banned from exhibit­ing or sell­ing their works. They were for­bid­den even from cre­at­ing art inside the pri­va­cy of their own homes. Many artists were forced to hide, numer­ous artists com­mit­ted sui­cide, and count­less oth­ers were impris­oned and murdered.

Hitler’s attack on art was sim­ple and fierce: destroy, steal, sell.

How­ev­er, those paint­ings deemed valu­able by the Nazi regime dur­ing their purge were held hostage. The Nazis took what they con­sid­ered the best for them­selves and sold major art anony­mous­ly by cre­at­ing fake his­to­ries, and with the help of Switzer­land. They fun­neled the immense prof­its of so-called Degen­er­ate Art” into the Nazi war machine.

Art was cur­ren­cy, art was control.

Hitler was deter­mined to cre­ate a façade of legit­i­ma­cy by fab­ri­cat­ing an unim­peach­able paper trail to show that many of these stolen works were sold to the Reich will­ing­ly. For exam­ple, in Nazi Ger­many, if fam­i­lies were put in con­cen­tra­tion camps, their archives and prove­nance records were destroyed and replaced with fake doc­u­ments and forced bills of sale. The Nazis also fab­ri­cat­ed tax debts that were marked paid by the acqui­si­tion of the Jew­ish family’s art.

Decades lat­er, the Nazis’ obses­sion with legal paper­work serves as inte­gral evi­dence for the heirs of Holo­caust vic­tims who are seek­ing resti­tu­tion of their family’s heir­looms, claim­ing that these sales were indeed forced, and that their rel­a­tives were coerced into giv­ing up their art­work under extreme duress. And yet, cer­tain coun­tries and muse­ums still cling to their stolen art­work by using the very same tac­tics that the Nazis them­selves used to steal the paintings.

My new nov­el, Woman on Fire, was inspired by the Cor­nelius Gurlitt art scan­dal — known as The Munich Art Hoard” — exposed in 2013. It sent shock­waves through­out the world. More than fif­teen hun­dred major works of art worth approx­i­mate­ly $1.5 bil­lion were dis­cov­ered hid­den for near­ly fifty years in the run­down Munich apart­ment of one Cor­nelius Gurlitt, who passed away in 2014 amid the scan­dal. His father was Hilde­brand Gurlitt, one of Hitler’s four autho­rized deal­ers of Nazi-loot­ed art. When he died, he bequeathed his mas­sive trea­sure trove to his reclu­sive ago­ra­pho­bic son who hid mas­ter­pieces in a food pantry, and even inside his stove. We’re talk­ing the cal­iber of Picas­so, Cha­gall, Cézanne, and Matisse. When I first read the exposé — again, I stopped in my tracks, chills rose along my arms — and I knew I had my story.

Sad­ly, it is a sto­ry that is ongo­ing, but there are rays of light. After years of inves­ti­ga­tion, the Fine Arts Muse­um of Bern, Switzer­land, revealed this past Decem­ber that it would give up” near­ly forty works of art (from the vast Gurlitt trea­sure that had been bequeathed to them in 2014 by Cor­nelius Gurlitt after he died). The museum’s inves­ti­ga­tors con­clud­ed that these paint­ings were indeed stolen by the Nazis or were of ques­tion­able ori­gin.” This big reveal gives hope to those seek­ing resti­tu­tion, but it’s not enough …

I always say: If only art could talk … Thou­sands of Nazi-loot­ed paint­ings are still out there, still being exhib­it­ed at revered muse­ums, still hid­ing with­in the con­fines of major col­lec­tions, still locked in years-long court bat­tles between the heir and the col­lec­tor who claims he/​she pur­chased a paint­ing in good faith, and those col­lec­tors who know the real his­to­ry but chose to look the oth­er way. If those mas­ter­pieces could speak — we would hear of a hid­den, nefar­i­ous past eager­ly wait­ing for the truth to be revealed.

Lisa Barr is The New York Times best­selling author of Woman on Fire, The Unbreak­ables, and the award-win­ning Fugi­tive Col­ors. She has served as an edi­tor for The Jerusalem Post, man­ag­ing edi­tor of Today’s Chica­go Woman and Moment mag­a­zine, and as an edi­tor and reporter for the Chica­go Sun-Times. She has appeared on Good Morn­ing Amer­i­ca and Today for her work as an author, jour­nal­ist, and blog­ger. She lives in the Chica­go area with her hus­band and three daughters.