The Nazis perpetrated the largest theft of artwork in history during World War II, and the work of returning the stolen art to its rightful owners still continues. But might Germany have an equally valid claim on the captured Nazi art that was looted by Allied soldiers during the war?
The bizarre provenance of such artwork—quite aside from each piece’s individual artistic merit or its reflection of the time when it was created—makes fascinating history. Over time, some pieces seem to vanish and reappear, subject to the vagaries of war, political upheavals, theft, and natural disasters. A number of famous paintings went down with the Titanic and others have been lost in almost every war and in natural disasters. In numerous cases, we simply do not know what happened to the famous art of the past—we only know of its loss because someone wrote about its existence.
At the Wounded Knee Massacre, the bodies of the slain Native Americans were left lying in the snow for several days until a blizzard passed. Some time after the fighting stopped, a soldier removed one of the sacred Ghost Shirts from the body of a dancer, eventually selling it to George Crager, a cowboy working for the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show. While performing in Europe, Crager gave the shirt to the city museum of Glasgow.
Almost a century later, a Cherokee tourist was shocked to see the sacred relic on display there and promptly informed the Lakota tribal leaders of its location. The tribe immediately began a lengthy campaign to recover the artifact. Great Britain had previously passed wide-reaching legislation that proclaimed that all art residing in English museums legally belongs to its respective museum and is held in trust for the people of the world (translation: "We have it and you ain't getting it back!"). While the Glaswegian city officials were adamant that the museum owned the magic shirt, the tribe waged a crafty public relations crusade that eventually forced the city to “gift” the ghost shirt back to the tribe. The campaign was greatly helped by serendipitous timing: the popular Kevin Costner western, Dances With Wolves, was released at almost the same time.
Note. After a lecture on the various military battles between the US Army and Native Americans, a foreign exchange student from Germany once asked me why Americans concern themselves so much with “conquered peoples”? This is, perhaps a question that only a German could ask.
Another example of "captive art" would be the bells of Balangiga. During the popular revolt called the Philippine Insurrection following the Spanish American War, (the nerve of those people resisting more than four decades of American occupation after we had liberated them from the Spanish!), the locals of Belangiga attacked the US Infantry on September 1, 1902, killing 48 soldiers, the Army’s largest military loss since Little Bighorn. In retaliation, General Smith ordered that the island be reduced to “a howling wilderness”—specifically ordering his soldiers to kill every male on the island over the age of ten. During the subsequent attack, the US Army seized the church bells of Belangiga, since the bells had been used to signal the surprise attack. Despite the pleas of the Catholic Church and the Government of the Philippines, the single remaining bell has been in the possession of the 9th US Infantry Regimental Museum, and is unlikely to be returned.
There are endless further examples: The Rosetta Stone, the Elgin Marbles, Scotland's Stone of Scone, Gustav Klimt's The Lady in Gold, the Hanuman statue from Cambodia, the Incan artifacts (that Yale University actually just returned to Peru)....the museums of the world could be emptied if all the claimed artifacts were returned to the various people who claim them.
Which brings us to the Rokeby Venus, or, as the artist called the painting, The Toilet of Venus. In sixteenth century Spain, paintings of nudes were forbidden unless they had religious or mythological significance (and even then, such work was more tolerated than encouraged). Nevertheless, the kings of Spain frequently collected such paintings, privately hiding their art away in what was called “the room where the king retires after dinner.” (Or translated in today’s vernacular—"the royal man cave".)
Philip IV was not immune to this collecting bug, and to expand his collection, he sent the court portrait artist, Diego Velasquez to Italy, not only to purchase suitable artwork for his private collection, but also to be influenced by such painters as Rubens, Titian, and Tintoretto. Velasquez made two trips to Italy, each lasting almost two years, and after each trip it is possible to detect a change in Velasquez: his work became more impressionistic, slowly moving away from the rigid realism of the artists of Madrid.
On his second trip to Italy, Velasquez painted his Venus—the only nude by the artist still existing. The work is obviously influenced by paintings of similar subjects by Titian. Indeed, Velasquez purchased several such works for the King’s private room and he also had a cast copy made of a statue of a reclining Venus by Borghese (right). However, Velasquez's painting of Venus is not a copy; it also may be the most sensual painting of a woman ever created.
While there is no doubt that the painting was originally intended for the king, it remained in Velasquez’s home until his death, possibly because the model had been his Italian mistress who had borne him a son. After Velasquez's death, the painting was sold to Don Gaspar Mendez de Haro, a notorious libertine.
Haro’s daughter married the Duke of Alba, and the painting remained the property of the family for almost two centuries. The family (probably wisely) hung the painting in a secluded location, safely away from the eyes of the public and the Inquisition. In 1802, upon the passing of the Duchess of Alba, King Charles IV commanded her estate to sell the painting to his Prime Minister and close personal friend, Manuel Godoy.
Godoy, too, had a private viewing room of salacious paintings that the Inquisition thoroughly disliked, but it could do nothing about this because of his position at court. Godoy hung the Velasquez painting alongside the two famous Goya paintings, the Maja Desnuda and the Maja Vestida. (One theory, impossible to prove, says that Goya used as his model the Duchess of Alba.)
Godoy was a much better art critic than Prime Minister—his policies led to a general collapse of the Spanish Empire and to the invasion of Spain itself by Napoleon. Godoy was disgraced, removed from power, briefly imprisoned in France, and eventually exiled from Spain for the rest of his life.
Exactly what happened to his art collection is unclear. In England, an ambitious art dealer, William Buchanan sent an agent to Madrid to acquire as much artwork of the great masters as possible. England was prospering, and suddenly there was a great market for antiquities and European art. Buchanan was a businessman who was not an admirer of art and who had only contempt for his customers. In a letter to a friend, he described one customer as having “a particular rage for naked beauties, and plenty of the ready to purchase them with.”
Buchanan’s agent, George Wallis, used both persuasion and bribes to acquire his goods. He also took advantage of the chaos that the changes in government, the protracted war, and the French and English invasions had caused, in order to acquire many of the paintings of the Spanish royalty. There are two competing, possible versions of how he acquired the Venus: either he bought it from an English soldier, or he bought it at an auction when the interim Spanish government ordered the sale of all property of those Spaniards who had aided the French in their invasion.
Napoleon installed his brother Joseph on the throne of Spain, but as the English slowly pushed the French out of Spain, the French hastily cut almost two hundred paintings from their frames, and tried to smuggle them out of the country. Eighty-three of the paintings were captured by the English at the Battle of Vitoria. They were presented by the army to its general, Arthur Wellesley, the future Duke of Wellington. Most of the paintings were eventually returned to Spain, though at least one Velasquez painting (The Water Seller of Seville) remains in the former Duke’s London home as a gift of King Ferdinand to the general who helped liberate Spain.
Regardless of how the painting of Venus was acquired, it was shipped to England and sold in 1813 by Buchanan to John Morris, a classical scholar famous for his hunt for the location of Troy—for the paltry sum of £500 (roughly $45,000 in today’s money). Morris hung the painting in his home at Rokeby Park, and over the next century the painting became popularly known as The Rokeby Venus.
In 1906, as the estate was broken up and auctioned, there was a risk that the painting would leave England. Certainly, museums and collectors from Europe and America desperately wanted to purchase the painting, so agents were dispatched to London to acquire it. The thought of England's losing the painting created a public outcry, which eventually lead to the creation of the National Art Collections Fund (even King Edward VII donated to the fund). The new fund's first purchase was the Velasquez masterpiece. Today, the Venus hangs in the National Gallery in London.
Whether it was war or greed that brought her to her new home, it is ironic that a painting created in Italy for the private pleasure of a Spanish King and sold because a French Emperor made his Corsican brother the King of Spain, is now available for public viewing because of an English king.