What’s the most important art heist in history? The theft of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” comes to mind, or even the removal of 12 important works from the Gardner Museum in Boston. Not even close. Multiply those by a million to get the largest art robbery conducted by the Nazis during World War II.
Those duly elected terrorists systematically looted or destroyed art and artifacts from private and public collections across Europe. Works were selected by Adolf Hitler’s second-in-command, Hermann Göring, and the Third Reich’s art advisers, then stolen and shipped to Germany. You’d think the Nazis were busy enough exterminating people and destroying cities, but Hitler even had a “wish list” of art he wanted pilfered for his personal collection.
This largely forgotten atrocity is revisited in the film documentary “The Rape of Europa,” which makes its Louisville debut as part of this year’s Jewish Film Festival. Narrated by actress Joan Allen, it goes into detail about the theft of millions of cultural objects as well as their recovery.
Much of the credit for the art’s rescue goes to a group of American military men and women known collectively as the “Monuments Men.” Working with art historians and museum curators, their mission at war’s end was to locate the missing art. Their persistence, along with excellent records kept by the Nazis themselves, enabled the return of an estimated 5 million artifacts from 1945-51, including Hitler’s personal stash that was hidden in various Austrian salt mines.
But thousands of items are still missing. Raphael’s “Portrait of a Young Man” was stolen from a museum in Krakow, Poland, in 1939. Pilfered at the same time was Leonardo’s “Lady with an Ermine” and Rembrandt’s “Landscape with a Good Samaritan.” The Leonardo and Rembrandt were located in 1945, but the Raphael is still M.I.A.
Museums today carefully research the ownership history of works housed in their permanent collections to ensure they don’t have items that were illegally acquired after WWII. In 2006, the Neue Galerie in New York City bought “Adele Bloch-Bauer I,” painted by Gustav Klimt in 1907. The portrait had been taken from the Bloch-Bauer family by the Nazis, then resurfaced years later in the collection of the Austrian Gallery of the Belvedere Palace in Vienna. After changes in the laws governing seized art made it possible for individuals to fight for their ancestors’ stolen artifacts, the heirs were able to get the painting returned to the family. They then sold it to the Neue Galerie.
The Speed Art Museum, where the film will be shown, is no exception to the documentation of provenance. After the screening, Associate Curator Kim Spence will explain how the museum has researched and verified its collection.
The ticket price for this event includes hors d’oeuvres, a viewing of the documentary and a discussion afterward. Tickets need to be purchased in advance at the Jewish Community Center (3600 Dutchmans Lane, 238-2777, www.jccoflouisville.org).
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‘The Rape of Europa’
Saturday, Feb. 23
Speed Art Museum
2035 S. Third St.
$45; 7:30 p.m.