Nazi antique shops

After the end of the war in 1945 Nazi art historians occupied important positions in German and Austrian museums. They would run profitable businesses. They were selling works of art from the collections of Herman Göring or Albert Speer as late as in the 1960s.

Between 1933 and 1945 the Germans stole at least 600,000 valuable works of art belonging to collectors of Jewish and other origin. Many art historians and art dealers participated in this practice. Today, researchers are uncovering the Nazi past of famous, and often highly regarded antiquarians living in the so-called “German-speaking square”, i.e.: Austria, Lichtenstein, Germany and Switzerland. They are also investigating dark secrets of marchands form the post-war period. The main issues are the trade in works of art of controversial provenance, the hiding of stolen objects and the concealment of WWII trade documents.

The following examples are just the tip of the iceberg.

Adolf Weinmüller’s career

Born in 1886 in Faistenhaar, Upper Bavaria, Adolf Weinmüller was a forester by profession but since 1921 he also ran a small antique shop. He joined the NSDAP in 1931. After Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, Weinmüller began to advance rapidly – he headed the Association of the Bund Deutscher Kunst- und Antiquitätenhändler e. V. (German Antiquarians and Art Dealers). This association was part of the Reichskammer der bildenden Künste (Reich Chamber of Fine Arts), one of the seven chambers, including music, theatre, writing, press, radio and film which made up the Reichskulturkammer (Reich Chamber of Culture). It was led by the Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda – Joseph Goebbels.

In 1934, only a year later, Weinmüller helped draft the “Act on the profession of auctioneer”, thanks to which it was possible to quickly eliminate Jews from the profession and lead to the closure of their auction houses.

In 1936, the Adolf Weinmüller Art Auction House was established, which soon became the largest salon of this type in the Third Reich. In 1938, after the pogrom of Jews known as the Night of Broken Glass, all Jewish galleries, antique shops and auction houses were closed in the Third Reich, and of course their property was taken over. Weinmüller took control of Samuel Kende’s auction house in Vienna and hired Franz Kieslinger, an expert at the world’s oldest Dorotheum Auction House, and at the same time a member of the NSDAP, a close associate of Kajetan (Kai) Mühlmann.

SIGN UP TO OUR PAGE He is also worth mentioning by the way, because in the Nazi system of power it was not just anyone. During the war, Mühlmann in the rank of SS-Standartenführer was secretary of state and head of the Main Department of Science and Education of the Government of the General Government, but also the head of an organization called “Dienststelle Mühlmann” (“Mühlmann’s office”). He is responsible for looting and transporting works of art from occupied Poland.
In the mid-1960s, the Weinmüller Auction House in Munich as well as Lempertz in Cologne offered works from the Hermann Göring collection for sale. Photo: HERMANN HISTORICA GmbH / Interfoto / Forum
In the Adolf Weinmüller Auction House (as well as, e.g. in the Dorotheum), a collection of Fritz Mannheimer looted in the Netherlands was sold. In the Adolf Weinmüller Auction House (as well as in the Dorotheum, among others), the following items were sold: Fritz Mannheimer’s collection looted in the Netherlands. The memories of Hanne Lenz, an art historian working for Weinmüller and the wife of the post-war German writer Herman Lenz, show that some of the objects sold in this branch were presented in such a way as to make it impossible to decipher the owner’s identity.

From mid-1941, Weinmüller, together with the art historian Hans Poss, visited the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia many a time. Most often, both men went to Prague to “acquire” exhibits for the Führer Museum (Führermuseum) in Linz, created one the basis looted works of art. They found the objects most often in the Gestapo headquarters in Prague and selected the most valuable pieces plundered from Czech and Slovak Jews. Among them were not only paintings, but also furniture.

After the war, Weinmüller returned to Munich and started running an antique shop again. In 1958, it was taken over by Rudolf Neumeister, but the salon functioned under the same name until the 1970s. Art historian Jan Świeczyński, PhD suggested that in the 1960s Weinmüller’s antique shop sold a valuable sculpture from Polish collections. The problem, however, is that in his text he mentioned a branch in Vienna, and this one has not existed since the 1950s. Is this a mistake? So I sent the company questions about the 1960s auction and the identities of potential sellers. The response said that the company had digitized catalogs from its headquarters in Munich from 1936-43 and Vienna from 1938-1944. The auction from the 1960s was not referred to.

Weinmüller maintained that the catalogs documenting his activities during the war were burned in the bombings. It is therefore difficult to find out what happened to the works he “acquired”. Meanwhile, dozens of books rested peacefully in the basement safe. In 2014, they were uncovered and studied by German historians. A scandal broke out, perhaps bigger than the disclosure of the Hildebrand Gurlitt collection in 2013.

Amazing Gurlitt Collection

„Ikon”, the obscure object of desire

In the Polish People’s Republic (Polska Rzeczpospolita Ludowa – PRL) Orthodox works of art were looted on a massive scale. At least 2500 icons from 15th to 19th centuries were stolen, so was about a dozen or so antique books and prazdniks.

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Hildebrand Gurlitt (born 1895) was an art historian. In 1925 he became director of the museum in Zwickau. Five years later, however, he lost his job due to his origin – his grandmother was Jewish – and to his love of modernism. So he moved to Hamburg and took a job at the local artists’ association, but here too he quickly lost his position when the press accused him of “Jewishing the environment”.

Then he took up the art trade. In 1937, Goebbels decided to use his knowledge and skills to sell “degenerate art” abroad. In 1938, Gurlitt was appointed to a ministerial commission dealing with the trade in “degenerate art”. From then on, Gurlitt traveled around the country looking for valuable exhibits. Based on his assessment, they were confiscated from museums, taken away or bought back from Jewish owners, probably at an exceptionally favorable price.

In 1939, Gurlitt sold 125 works at the Fischer Gallery in Lucerne. In 1943, he joined the “Sonderauftrag Linz” – an art commission for the Führermuseum in Linz. At the same time, he enriched his own collections. At auctions, he bought works from various eras, from the 16th to the 20th century. He kept them in France.

In June 1945 he was arrested by the Allies. After several years, however, the courts found that he did not collaborate with the Nazis, but was their “sympathizer”. Rehabilitated, Gurlitt returned to work as an art historian. He was the director of the Society of Fine Arts in Düsseldorf and exhibited works from his collection, e.g. at the “Deutsche Kunst” exhibition in Lucerne in 1953. He died in 1956 as a result of a car accident.

The collection was inherited by his son Cornelius. Together with his sister, he smuggled from France to Germany works bought by his father and kept by the French art dealer Raphael Gérard. In February 2013, the collection was found by... the police – Cornelius was suspected of tax crimes. The collection of 1,406 paintings is estimated at one billion euros.

In Germany, they underwent meticulous provenance research due to suspicions that they came from looting. The Germans recognized 14 works as “undoubtedly plundered”. In the German register of “Lost Art” I found 91 objects that passed through the hands of Hildebrand Gurlitt.

After the death of Cornelius Gurlitt in 2014, his collection went to the art museum in Bern. As of December 2021, 38 paintings in this collection were found to have been stolen.

Bruno Lohse’s international businesses

Lohse (born 1911) was a doctor of art history and a member of the SS. From 1940, he was also Hermann Göring’s man in Paris. He worked in the Operational Staff of Rosenberg (Einsatzstab Rosenberg – created after Alfred Rosenberg, recognized as a criminal and executed in Nuremberg in 1946), who for four years collected trucks full of valuable items belonging to Jews deported to extermination camps. Lohse personally participated in the confiscation of more than 30,000 images. For the Marshal of the Reich, he chose the most valuable ones, e.g. “Langlois Bridge in Arles” by Vincent van Gogh and “The Boy in the Red Cap” by Rembrandt looted from the Rothschild collection.

After WWII, Lohse was arrested. He spent three years in prison. During this time, he helped Americans identify stolen works of art deposited in a depot in Munich. He testified against Göring in the Nuremberg trials. He was finally released in 1950. And for the next few decades he traded in stolen paintings.

At the beginning of this century, it came to light that for all these years he had been hiding Camille Pissarro’s painting “Le Quai Malaquais et l'Institut, Printemps” stolen in 1938 in Vienna from Samuel Fischer.
1950. The trial of members of the Rosenberg Staff in a French court. Seated from left: Georg Ebert, Gerhard Utikal, Bruno Lohse and Artur Pfanistel, accused of stealing treasures of French art during the German occupation. Photo: PAP/Alamy
In 1940, the painting was sold in the Viennese Dorotheum – the world’s oldest auction house, founded at the beginning of the 18th century by Emperor Joseph I – as a work by Paul Emile Pisarro. Then it passed through the hands of German traders: Eugen Primavesi (in Vienna) and Hans Lange (in Berlin). This is where the trail stopped.

In 2001, Gisela Fischer, Samuel’s granddaughter, registered the painting with the Art Register Loss. And Joachim Pissarro, the painter’s great-grandson, came across a catalog showing that “Le Quai Malaquais” was exhibited at the Lausanne exhibition in 1984 as “the property of a Swiss collector”. Ms. Fischer therefore became suspicious that Bruno Lohse might have been involved in the theft of the painting. Her lawyer contacted Lohs but failed to obtain any relevant information. He only heard that his interlocutor “is old, sick and knows nothing”.

After several years, in 2007, Ms. Fischer was contacted by prof. Jonathan Petropoulus, an American scientist specializing in the search for works of art stolen by the Nazis, and Peter Griebert, son of Lohse’s collaborator from Rosenberg’s Operations Staff. In exchange for 18 per cent of the finder's fee, they gave her information about the whereabouts of the artwork belonging to her grandfather.

Thanks to the cooperation of the services from Munich, Zurich and Vaduz, it came to light that in 1978 Bruno Lohse founded a trust in Liechtenstein dealing with the trade in works of art – Schönart Anstalt and... donated 14 objects to it. In this way, he took advantage of local regulations allowing the acceptance of assets “in good faith”.

The services found “Le Quai Malaquais et l'institut, Printemps” in a safe deposit box in a Zurich bank rented by Schönart Anstalt. In 2007, the work was returned to the Fischer family under a settlement.

It is also worth mentioning that after the death of a German art dealer, not only Pissarro’s painting was found in a Swiss bank, but also 14 other masterpieces painted by, among others, Albrecht Dürer, Claude Monet, August Renoir, Alfred Sisley, Oskar Kokoschka and Jan van Kessel. Each of the paintings is worth several million euros.

Where is the Rubens painting from Kalisz?

Did the masterpiece burn down? Or maybe it fell prey to thieves?

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Investigators found that the 1984 Lausanne exhibition that gave rise to the search was called “L'impressionnisme dans les collections romandes” and was held at the “Fondation de l'Hermitage”. In addition to Pissaro’s painting, works by Corot, Monet, Renoir and Sisley, also belonging to Lohse, were exhibited there. The officers also found documents showing that in 2006 the German art historian was auctioning three paintings from his collection at the Fischer Gallery in Lucerne.

Suspicious transactions in Lempertz

The Lempertz Auction House in Cologne began its suspicious activities before the war and before the Holocaust. In 1937, it auctioned 228 objects belonging to Max Stern, an art dealer with Jewish roots, whose gallery was closed by the decision of the Chamber of Fine Arts of the Third Reich, under a law on which another hero of this story, Weinmüller, collaborated. The auction still raises a lot of controversy and some researchers see it as a “forced sale”. But there are also many indications that Max Stern could still be its silent participant.

In 1939, the same auction house sold the collection of the Jewish collector Walter Westfeld, arrested by the Nazis. Works by Peter Paul Rubens, Camille Pissarro, Carl Spiztweg, among others, were put up for auction.

In 1942, Westfald was deported to the Terezin concentration camp, and a year later he was transferred to Auschwitz, where he died. The date of the collector’s death is unknown. He was pronounced dead in 1945, after the camp was liberated.

In the mid-1960s, Lempertz, together with the auction houses of Leo Spik in Berlin and Weinmüller in Munich, brokered – presumably unwittingly – the sale of 113 inferior works from Herman Göring’s collection. These artifacts were put up for sale by Halldor Soehner, director general of the Bavarian State Picture Collection, who concealed their origin.

In May 1981, 20 to 30 paintings belonging to Albert Speer were sold at an auction. He was also a high-ranking Nazi politician and minister. Due to his education and connections, he was called “Hitler’s architect”. And it was his art collection that was sold under the label “private collection”. In this case, there could be no question of the unconscious involvement of the auction house. The owner’s name has been concealed on purpose.


Such stories, revealed from time to time, cause shock, but also provoke questions about the art trade in Europe. Do we already know everything about the post-war activities of Nazi art dealers? Do we really know the fate of minor work from collections looted by dignitaries of the Third Reich? How is the process of recovering the assets of the heirs of the pre-war owners progressing? How many paintings of suspicious provenance could have passed through renowned auction houses? After WWII, most of them did not bear any responsibility for their actions, and some prospered, continuing to trade in stolen artifacts.

– Małgorzata Borkowska – Translated by Dominik Szczęsny-Kostanecki

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists


“Kunsthandel im Nationalsozialismus: Adolf Weinmüller in München und Wien” – Meike Hopp
“Die Bilder sind unter uns. Das Geschäft mit NS-Raubkunst” – Stefan Koldenhoff
“Art Dealers Network in the Third Reich and The Post War” by Jonathan Petropoulus. “The journal of contemporary history” Vol 52 No. 3.
„Grabieżcy kultury i fałszerze sztuki” – Jan Świeczyński. „Wydawnictwa Radia i Telewizji. Warszawa 1986”. str 122
„Sprawa Adolfa Weinmüllera. Nowy skandal ze zrabowaną sztuką?” – Andrzej Pawlak. Deutsche Welle, 03.06.2014
„Looted Paintings Found in Nazi Dealer Safe” – „Der Spiegel” 06.06.2007
„Latami handlował skradzionymi po wojnie obrazami. Gdy zmarł, dzieła Picassa czy Moneta znaleziono w tajnej skrytce” – Anna Arno, „Wysokie Obcasy”, 06.10. 2021
Main photo: Claude Monet’s “Waterloo Bridge” was among the works of art looted during the war. It ended up in the collection of the German collector Hildebrand Gurlitt. Photo: PETER KLAUNZER/EPA/PAP.
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