Plundered Art: the unexpected side-effect of war

Write an Article

There are a number of reasons why art crimes at committed during war, including intentional destruction, collateral damage, political advantage, ignorance, megalomania, religious fervour or opportunism. This article will focus on the story of the Ghent Altarpiece. This impressive polyptych altarpiece, composed of 12 panels can currently be found in St Bavo’s Cathedral, in Ghent, Belgium. Begun in the mid 1420s and completed in 1432, the altarpiece is attributed to Hubert and Jan van Eyck, Early Flemish painters. It has acquired masterpiece status, and worldwide recognition. The panels were commissioned by Ghent mayor Jodocus Vijd, as part of a project for the St Bavo Cathedral chapel.

The mind-blowing story of the altarpiece begins a century after its completion. It is believed that after its completion, it was composed a very ornate, carved outer frame, clockwork mechanisms for moving the shutters, and inscriptions by the painters on the frame. The inscriptions stated that Hubert van Eyck was greater than anyone, and Jan van Eyck was second best in the art. All of these artefacts are now lost, destroyed during the Reformation, a movement within Western Christianity in 16th century Europe that challenged the Catholic Church religiously and politically. The predella, the platform on which the altarpiece stood, was also destroyed then, by fire. What remained of the altarpiece – its core, the twelve panels – was moved out of the chapel in order to prevent further damage. First, it was stored in the attic, then was relocated in the town hall, where it remained for two decades.

Considered a major turning point in the way the international community treated and still treats the plunder of art during war, the Napoleonian wars lasted from 1789 to 1815. Before, it was understood that the winner of a war took all, an unwritten law dating back to mid-Second century BCE, following the plunder of art by Rome after defeating Carthage and Greece. In revolutionary France, the rights of property were supplanted by the right of revolution and national feelings, and this applied to art. After the creation of the French Republic on September 22nd, 1792, the country gave itself the title of true heir of the traditions of the classical world, and the natural home to plundered works of art.

“The French Republic, by its strength and superiority of its enlightenment and its artists, is the only country in the world which can give a home to these masterpieces. All other Nations must come to borrow from our art, as they once imitated our frivolity” – Petition to the Committee of the Directory, October 1796.

“Too long have these masterpieces been sullied by the gaze of serfs…these immortal works are no longer in a foreign land…they rest today in the home of the arts and of genius, in the motherland of liberty and sacred equality, in the French Republic” – Antoine Barbier addressing the National Convention in September 1794, October 1794

Thus, plundered art from France, Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium were sent to Paris. Including the Ghent Altarpiece, that ended up being exhibited at the Louvres for years. It was only returned to St Bavo’s Cathedral in 1815, after the Battle of Waterloo and the consequent French defeat. Upon its return, the altarpiece was sold. Initially, only the painting’s wings – excluding the Adam and Eve panels – were pawned, by the Diocese of Ghent for the equivalent of 240 dollars. Since he failed to redeem them, they were sold to English collector Edward Solly in Berlin in 1816, for 4 000 dollars. They were sold again in 1821 to the King of Prussia, Frederick William III for 16 000 dollars. Subsequently, they were exhibited for decades in the Germaldegalerie in Berlin. The Adam and Eve panels were sent to a museum in Brussels.

The altarpiece’s misfortune continued during World War I, when panels still in the cathedral were taken by German forces. In the Treaty of Versailles, signed on June 28th, 1919 and bringing an end to the war, it was stipulated that Germany should give back the plundered art. The Mystic Lamb tryptic, part of the altarpiece, was singled out for special mention in the treaty, to be given back to Belgium.

The last major crime against the Ghent Altarpiece in wartime this article will discuss, thankfully the last it has suffered to date, was committed during World War II. It is well-known that art had a special place in Hitler’s worldview. Loathing Modern Art, his interest for centuries-old paintings is unsurprising. As he started planning for the Linz museum, a project in his hometown he intended on filling with stolen art, the rest of Europe began hiding its masterpieces. The Ghent Altarpiece was thus sent to the Vatican, loaded in three trucks, in 1940. The convoy was detoured when Italy declared war as an Axis power alongside Germany to the Chateau of Pau in south-Western France. In June 1942, Hitler set out to recover the Ghent Altarpiece. The task was given to Doctor Ernst Buchner, director of the Bavarian Museums. Upon arrival at the Chateau of Pau, he encountered the refusal of the French curator in charge to hand the work over. Pierre Laval, the head of the Vichy government had to personally send a telegraph ordering the curator to hand the altarpiece over. As a result, it was handed to Germany. For years, it disappeared.

Established in 1943, the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives program under the Civil Affairs and Military Government Sections of the Allied armies aimed to help protect cultural property in war areas during and after World War II. The members of the MFAA were known as Monuments Men. The term excludes the many women who took part in the program one way or another, including Rose Valland. A mostly retired art-historian, Valland became an unpaid volunteer assistant at the Jeu de Paume right before the Occupation began. When the plundering began, she was sent by German officials to catalogue the works. Secretly, Valland passed information about transport details to the Resistance. Often targeting trains to weaken the German forces, the Resistance could then know which trains contained works of art and must be protected to avoid destruction. Thanks to her thorough inventory and locations, as well as information from the Allied Intelligence, the Monuments Men gradually secured monuments. The reveal of the location of not only the Ghent altarpiece, but 6 500 other paintings came unexpectedly. A passing comment by a dentist treating architect and Monument Man Captain Robert Posey led them to fugitive SS Captain Hermann Bunjes. The fugitive accidentally revealed the existence of the Altaussee salt-mine after having assumed the Americans knew about it already, going as far as bragging about his knowledge of its content. The salt-mine was chosen by the Germans to shelter the cream of the Linz plunder, as well as the Viennese treasures, kept in a nearby mine. On top of the 6 500 paintings, 2 300 drawings and watercolours, 954 prints and 137 sculptures were found, as well as an unknown number of books and objects. The Ghent altarpiece was finally returned to St Bavo’s cathedral, where it remains today.

The Ghent altarpiece has been described as one of the most coveted and desired pieces of art. Overall it was the victim of thirteen crimes since its installation, as well as seven thefts. To this day, the Just Judges panel is still missing after being stolen in 1934.

Recommend0 recommendationsPublished in Art

More Articles

Ravi Shah

Art Attaché Articles Guide

Write an Article today! Come see how easy it is for you to get involved. This guide will show you how to write your articles on Art Attache.

Read More »
Ravi Shah

The NEW Rise of the Curator

Emerging out of this global crisis is a new age for the consumption of Art culture. Covid-19 has hit the art industry hard both in sales and exhibitions however there is light at the end of the tunnel…

Read More »