When news of a hidden trove of Nazi-looted art in Munich came to light this month, an 87-year-old man in a quiet retirement community in New Jersey straightened a copy of a Rembrandt self-portrait hanging on his wall, completely unsurprised.
The picture is a constant reminder to Harry Ettlinger of his days with the “Monuments Men,” the allied forces team tasked with returning looted art to its rightful owners at the end of World War Two.
The Munich discovery helped reveal a little-known fact about the Monuments Men.
Just as their operation was being shut down, they were forced to return some of the recovered art to known Nazi dealers who could document they had owned the pieces before the war.
With so much art left unrecovered, and so many pieces not returned to their rightful owners, it was inevitable a hoard of lost works would be unearthed in the future, Ettlinger said.
“I think this is the beginning,” Ettlinger said outside his New Jersey condominium. “It was anticipated by the Monuments Men that I knew that these things were going to come to the surface in the future, and it’s happening.”
The Nazis were instructed by Adolf Hitler to seize art in every territory they occupied. Pieces were confiscated because they were either deemed “degenerate,” had been chosen for display in Hitler’s museum, or could be sold through the Nazis’ art dealers to fund the Third Reich.
The Munich collection contained about 1,400 pieces from the apartment of Cornelius Gurlitt, son of known Nazi art dealer Hildebrand Gurlitt. U.S. records show the Monuments Men returned 165 pieces to Gurlitt, though it was unknown whether any more than one of those - a work by German artist Otto Dix - surfaced in Munich.
Gurlitt showed papers that he had owned the 165 pieces before the war, said Robert Edsel, author of “The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History,” the book the upcoming film “The Monuments Men” is based on.
Reuters has since discovered archives showing other known Nazi art dealers had work returned to them by the Monuments Men, including Karl Haberstock, who received 29 unnamed paintings, and Maria Almas-Dietrich, who received 22 tapestries.