Seized Jewish Art Collections

Before 1940, Paris was the center of the international art world. Thousands of artists, Jews and non-Jews alike, converged on France and especially Paris to feed off the myriad intellectual and esthetic trends and movements that one could study, adopt or reject there. Jewish artists in particular had come by the thousands before and after World War I, fleeing Russia, the Balkans, Poland, the newly-formed Yugoslavia and other points north and center.

Many Jewish dealers, collectors, merchants, art historians, and critics expressed a vast range of tastes and preferences ranging from abstract art to 18th century furniture to medieval crucifixes, African masks, Albanian swords and Japanese netsuke.

The German invasion of Western Europe in the spring of 1940 produced a massive exodus that included many individuals from the art world—whether consumers, producers or brokers. The imposition of anti-Jewish laws by the German military administration in France and the collaborationist government of Marshal Philippe Pétain put an end to the pre-war culture dominated by the so-called School of Paris, whose members were overwhelmingly Jewish and came to France from the far reaches of Eastern and Southeastern Europe. Those Jewish artists who, in the wake of the German occupation of France, did not have the means to escape to neutral havens or to the Americas sought refuge in small towns across unoccupied France, abandoning to an uncertain fate their entire corpus of work in studios, flats, and storage facilities. Many art dealers and collectors fled to Spain and Portugal and from there to the United States.

A week had barely gone by after the German Army occupied Paris in June 1940 when representatives of Reich civilian and military agencies began to plunder bookstores, galleries, cultural and educational institutions, newspaper offices and archives. The cultural section of the German military administration (MbF) began to plunder under the guise of “safeguarding” cultural treasures, while agents of the German embassy in Paris aided by the so-called Devisenschutzkommando (DSK) and the field police units (GFP), raided the private collections of wealthy Jewish dealers and families like the Rothschilds. As of mid-September 1940, the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR) took over the management and execution of cultural plunder in occupied France, mostly aimed at collections owned by Jews.

One of the side effects of plunder was the release into the open market of objects and works of art kept locked up in private homes, residences, and estates for decades.. From a strictly art-historical standpoint, the record of the plunder of private collections provides a voyeuristic look into cultural production previously removed from the public sphere.

The Neuwied “collection”

Jews who planned on emigrating from Belgium and the Netherlands before the arrival of the German Army had packed their belongings in “lifts” stored in freight forwarding and shipping companies in cities like Antwerp, Amsterdam and Rotterdam. After the German invasion of spring 1940, Belgium and the Netherlands were overrun and conquered. Soon thereafter, the lifts and other storage containers were seized as “Jewish property”. Agents of the Ostministerium working with the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR) had those storage containers transferred to a depot managed by the ERR at Neuwied, in the Rhineland. There, cultural items belonging to Jews were inventoried and given an NWD alphanumeric designation. They were transferred in 1943 either to the Berlin HQ of the ERR at Bellevuestrasse or to a major depot of the ERR at Schloss Kogl/Attergau in Upper Austria.