‘An incredible sense of purpose’: the brave women who fought for the return of Nazi-confiscated art

Celebrating the contributions of women in art restitution, on the 25th anniversary of the Washington Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art

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During and after the Second World War, members of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFA&A) program bravely fought to safeguard cultural property and return art stolen by the Nazis. These service members and civilians, many pulled from the world’s elite art institutions, were known as the Monuments Men, inspiring such films as The Train (1964) and George Clooney's Monuments Men (2014). But among their ranks were several pioneering women, who lent critical expertise and dedication to the cause.

These Monuments Women — including art scholars Rose Valland, Ardelia Hall and Anne Olivier Bell — worked tirelessly to document and track down looted art and cultural objects. Their important efforts were but the beginning of the long history of restitution that continues to this day. While the MFA&A focussed on repatriating works to their country of origin, the process of returning cultural property to individual victims and their heirs has been protracted and complicated.

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Edith Standen, Rose Valland and a soldier converse while men prepare paintings for transportation, 1946. James J. Rorimer papers, 1921-1982. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution

In 1998, an international conference established the Washington Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art. The 11 guidelines ushered in a new wave of restitution, positing a way forward for victims and their heirs to research, locate, and, where possible, recover missing art and lost histories. Leading this wave was Maria Altmann, a Jewish refugee who in her eighties waged a successful legal battle for the return of paintings by Gustav Klimt that were seized from her family by the Nazis.

This year, on the 25th anniversary of the Washington Principles, Christie’s is proud to host Reflecting on Restitution, a global programme of events to discuss important stories and topics in the field, including a discussion with E. Randol Schoenberg, the lawyer who represented Ms. Altmann in the restitution of the Klimts.

‘Restitution is also about recovering history, and it is important that we celebrate the underappreciated history of the tenacious female pioneers of our field,’ said Andrea Lehmann, a senior researcher in Christie’s Restitution Department. ‘All of us doing this work today look to them as our inspiration, and we are honoured to take up their work and carry it forward.’

The following women made indelible contributions to restitution efforts and paved the way for future generations in the pursuit of justice and the return of Nazi-confiscated property.

Rose Valland

With degrees in art history from the École du Louvre and the Sorbonne, the French-born Rose Valland was working at the Jeu de Paume Museum in Paris when in 1940 it was commandeered by the Nazis. It became the headquarters of the Nazi art looting organization, ‘Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg’ (ERR). Keeping her knowledge of the German language a secret, she risked her life to spy on the Nazis’ transport of stolen art. She surreptitiously recorded detailed notes that proved essential to the French Résistance and later the MFA&A in recovery efforts.

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Rose Valland, 1946. Photograph the Everett Collection Inc / Alamy Stock Photo

Her records guided the MFA&A to significant stockpiles of looted art, including at Neuschwanstein Castle in the Bavarian Alps, where they found more than 20,000 works stolen by the Nazis from private collectors and art dealers in France.

‘Rose Valland is an inspiration to provenance researchers everywhere. She had incredible sangfroid and sense of purpose. She bravely documented crucial information which we continue to refer to today,’ says Lehmann.

Ardelia Hall

The American art historian Ardelia Hall held positions at the Department of Asian Art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the Harvard-Yenching Institute before she was recruited by the Far East Division of the Office of Strategic Services in 1943 for her extensive background in Asian art. In 1945 she became a consultant of the US Department of State for Japan and Korea, liaising between the Roberts Commission and the MFA&A in the Pacific theatre.

She served as the MFA&A advisor to the US State Department for the next 18 years and personally oversaw the return of 1,300 items, including a Monet that was returned to the Rothschild family in Paris. In 1952, she famously returned a portrait of St. Catherine by Rubens to Germany that had gone missing from the Düsseldorf museum during the war. Her original collection of records is housed in the National Archives in College Park, Maryland.

Anne Olivier Bell

Perhaps best known for her seminal edition of the diaries of Virginia Woolf, the Englishwoman Anne Olivier Popham Bell first had a storied career as a civilian officer in the MFA&A. At the division’s office in Bünde, Germany, she coordinated Monuments officers in the field and helped develop restitution procedures. She also led the restitution of thousands of bronze church bells, some dating back to the 12th century, that had been seized by the Nazis to melt down into cannons and ammunition.

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Anne Olivier Bell, 2006. Photograph by Eamonn McCabe/Popperfoto via Getty Images

Her professional diaries at the Imperial War Museum in London detail the perseverance of MFA&A officers to deliver on their mandate of restitution in the face of the often competing demands of various military and civilian parties. For example, in what became known as the Wiesbaden Manifesto, which was distributed by Monuments Woman Edith Standen, MFA&A officers protested the removal of more than 200 works of art from a German museum to the United States.

Family advocates

While the Monuments Men and Women sought to return confiscated art to its country of origin, it often fell to individuals to advocate on behalf of their families for the return of art confiscated or sold under extreme duress during the war.

Fleeing Amsterdam for the United States in 1939, Henriette Hirschland, wife of the German banker and art collector Kurt Hirschland, ensured safe keeping of three of her cherished artworks, including Van Gogh’s La Mousmé, when she entrusted the works to a family associate. Amidst the turbulence, the artworks passed hands several times. The Van Gogh eventually went to the Stedelijk Museum in 1943.

After the war, Henrietta led the recovery efforts for La Mousmé, which was restituted to the Hirschland family in 1956. Her grandson later described the restitution effort stating, ‘Dux femina facti’ (a woman was the leader of the deed).

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Desiree Goudstikker, 1946. Photography Penta Springs / Alamy Stock Photo

The Viennese opera singer Desiree Goudstikker sought to recover the collection of her husband, the prominent Jewish Dutch art dealer Jacques Goudstikker, whose paintings were forcibly sold to the Nazi leader Hermann Göring after they fled persecution in the Netherlands in 1940, a flight during which Jacques tragically died.

When more than 300 works were returned to the Dutch government after the war, they sold dozens of works and incorporated 267 into the Dutch National Collection. Mrs. Goudstikker and her family fought a lengthy legal battle for the collection that continued after her death. In 2006, finally 202 Old Master paintings were returned to Goudstikker’s descendants in one of the largest restitutions ever of art seized by the Nazis.

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Maria Altmann with a reproduction Gustav Klimt's Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I. Photograph by Lawrence K. Ho/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

In one of the most well-known restitution cases, Maria Altmann sued the Austrian government for the return of her family’s paintings by Gustav Klimt. These included a stunning gold-flecked portrait of her aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer. The release of five Klimt paintings to Mrs. Altmann in 2006 marked a major victory for restitution. The portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer went on to become a part of the collection of the Neue Galerie in New York, and Mrs. Altmann was portrayed by Helen Mirren in a 2015 film about her story.

More urgent than ever

Even as thousands of stolen cultural assets have been returned since the creation of the Washington Principles in 1998, the fight for restitution continues. Many families are still seeking to be reunited with the art that was taken from them. New legislation, research funding and infrastructure as well as technological advancements have made it increasingly possible to locate long-missing works, allowing today's researchers to further the work begun by the Monuments Men and Women.

‘It’s a bit like walking in their footsteps,’ says Sarah Done, director of Christie's Restitution Department. ‘With the new tools that are available to us, we’re having a conversation through the ages.’

From the 1990s, a new generation of women took the lead in research initiatives and restitution efforts. Nancy Yeide of the National Gallery of Art published the first comprehensive catalogue of Hermann Göring’s collection and in 2001 co-authored the American Alliance of Museum’s Guide to Provenance Research, the first such guide and an essential resource for many researchers.

Anne Webber founded the Commission for Looted Art in Europe in 1999. The organisation works with governments and institutions throughout the world to implement the Washington Principles and represents those looking to identify and recover stolen property.

Attorney-at-law and former International Director of Restitution at Christie’s, Monica Dugot, led the company’s handling of Nazi-looted art issues for 16 years. An authority on provenance and restitution matters, she mediated an impressive number of Nazi-looted art restitution claims during her tenure. An international team of nine researchers continues the department’s steadfast work today.

The determination and grit of the women at the forefront of the restitution cause, from the Second World War to the present and into the future, are a testament to the moral conviction that underpins their work: to achieve justice for the rightful owners of these prized works of art.

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