Those in attendance at Sunday’s lecture and panel discussion, “Searching for the ‘Lost Museum:’ Three Perspectives on Nazi Art Looting,” were privileged to hear the first-hand accounts of three distinguished individuals who have devoted enormous efforts to tracing works of art looted by the Nazis during World War II. The lecture, arranged by the Williams College Museum of Art, took place at 2:00 in the afternoon at Brooks-Rogers Recital Hall.
The main lecture was given by Hector Feliciano, a journalist whose recent book, The Lost Museum, addresses the history of this cultural travesty and describes his undertakings to restore works to their rightful owners. Following this presentation, S. Lane Faison Jr. ’29 and Charles Parkhurst Jr. ’35 each spoke about their experiences at the frontlines of the restoration process. Both art historians served in post-war Navy operations dedicated to documenting the dispersion of stolen art. The entire event, lasting almost two and one half hours, was a fascinating opportunity for members of the Williams community to hear the insights and anecdotes of three individuals intimately involved in various stages of this ongoing endeavor.
Hector Feliciano began his presentation by laying down the background of Nazi looting. “The first thing to understand,” he emphasized, “[is that the] looting would never have taken place if it were not for Hitler and Goering’s interest in art. Adolph Hitler considered himself an artist above all.” His failure in this capacity is lamentable, for after being rejected from art and architecture schools, his later artistic achievements would include only notorious works such as the swastika-emblazoned Nazi flag. Herman Goering was an avid collector even before the German Army’s plundering augmented his personal holdings. The interest of Hitler and Goering, and the particular Nazi aesthetic they formulated, was integral in shaping the looting process.
Their love of German and Dutch Old Masters was influential in deciding which collections were to be targeted and where the particular works ended up. The modern works they despised, such as those of Picasso and Mattise, were pejoratively called “degenerate art.” These pieces, as well as Impressionist works, were bartered to obtain paintings more to Hitler’s liking. As a result of these practices, it is the modern and Impressionist works that were most scattered and thus more difficult to track down.
Many of these paintings (Feliciano estimates 100,000) are still unaccounted for. While efforts to track down the art have been facilitated by the Nazis’ meticulous inventory, the job of returning plundered works to their rightful owners remains unfinished. Feliciano has passionately undertaken this task. He described the complexities of the process: hunting through catalogues, delving into the archives of Nazi documentation and tracing the expansive provinces. Often luck plays a large role in discovering the location and history of a looted work. Feliciano told many anecdotes of such happy coincidences, as well as frustrating accounts of dealing with uncooperative museums and unyielding bureaucracies.
The pursuit of looted works is a charged and controversial topic. Those in possession of valuable works do not want to lose them, nor do they want to be reminded of the insidious pasts of their holdings. As Feliciano explained, “Ã¬t is a complex issue, and people act in complex ways.”
The result in many cases is litigation; Feliciano told of a suit pending against him for $2,000,000 for allegedly injuring the reputation of a museum that is he cites in his book as possessing works stolen by the German Army. While the task is often “discouraging,” Feliciano said he remains “hopeful that paintings will continue to surface” as the public becomes more informed. His efforts, such as his acclaimed book and speaking engagements, have played no small part in increasing public awareness.
Following the lecture, the audience in Brooks-Rogers heard from two art historians, and distinguished Williams alumni, involved in the postwar retrieval efforts. S. Lane Faison Jr., professor of art emeritus, has worked within the Office of Strategic Services to document paintings recovered from the Germans. Faison enthusiastically described his task as “writing the history of the formation of the collection of Adolph Hitler.” In addition to sharing some fabulous stories, he praised the work of Feliciano and others whose recent undertakings have ended the “long gap of silence” that has plagued postwar efforts to trace looted art.
Charles Parkhurst Jr., art professor, curator and museum director, also served within the Navy as Deputy Chief of Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Recuperation in the postwar efforts to track down plundered art. He too told a number of fascinating anecdotes. In one particularly memorable incident, Parkhurst mistook Rodin’s Burghers of Calais for a group of real-life gesticulating gentlemen. Parkhurst spoke about his inspiration for undertaking this particular Navy assignment and the reason he labored “with a great deal of relish:” he felt “a drive to rectify a wrong,” the Nazi’s depriving the French of their own cultural markers.
Parkhurst also expressed that the restoration of the stolen art works to their rightful owners was “not one man’s job.” Indeed, Feliciano, Faison and Parkhurst are exemplary of the many individuals who have contributed to the enormous, ongoing and essential endeavor of righting the cultural injustice of Nazi art looting.