Photo by Archives du ministère des Affaires étrangères on Wikimedia Commons

The Art Plunderer of Paris

Jonathan Petropoulos—

The evening was planned as a form of theater, a series of carefully staged scenes. Each room, or set, in the extraordinary eighteenth-century Parisian hôtel particulier featured a theme or a moment in art history. One was the French rococo of the eighteenth century with, in the words of one of the guests, “the most beautiful Fragonards and Bouchers you have ever seen situated among Louis XVI furniture.”1 After champagne and hors d’oeuvres in the first salon, the diners moved on to the next course among the Impressionists— Monets, Degas, and Renoirs surrounding them. White-gloved waiters served exquisite food, lifting gleaming silver plate covers in unison to reveal the gourmet repast. After the main course, the guests enjoyed dessert and drinks among the moderns—Matisse, Picasso, and Modigliani. It was a show, a lesson in art history, a display of power, and an exercise in trust, all at the same time. Very few were permitted into the Wildensteins’ inner sanctum on the rue La Boétie (pronounced in the Parisian argot “La Bo-ay-see”).

Back in the 1950s, crowds flocked to the Wildenstein showrooms a short distance away in the rue du Faubourg Saint Honoré for exhibitions on the art of Monet, Gauguin, and many others whose work they acquired and sold. As purveyors of very expensive works to elite collectors, the Wildensteins were part of the cultural life of both Paris and New York. In France, they often have been referred to simply as “Les W.”2 Monsieur Daniel, the patriarch of the world’s greatest art-dealing dynasty from the death of his father in 1963 until his own passing in 2001, had carried on a family tradition of exclusivity, even as he formally shifted the business center of Wildenstein, Inc. to New York. Their clients included J. Paul Getty, Nelson Rockefeller, Gianni Agnelli, and Walter Annenberg, but also many of the world’s greatest museums, beginning with the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Yet it was the Wildensteins themselves who decided to whom they would show something, and when they would sell it. They were known to hoard treasures for decades, even for generations, locking away works in their repositories dispersed around the globe. In 1978, they reportedly had ten thousand paintings in their possession, with the New York storeroom (also referred to as “The Vault”) alone holding twenty-five Courbets, ten van Goghs, and twenty Renoirs, among many other works.3

The two guests on this evening in the mid-1980s would have warranted additional discretion. They were German colleagues, art dealers from Munich. But one in particular represented a threat to the reputation of the Wildensteins, who were of Alsatian Jewish origins. Dr. Bruno Lohse had been Hermann Göring’s art agent in Paris during World War II. Göring stood as the second most powerful figure in the Nazi leadership during the early years of the war, and this helped make Lohse among the most prominent individuals in the French branch of the ERR, which ravaged the collections of French Jews. The ERR itself was a sizeable multinational organization, with branches in Belgium and the Netherlands and even more ambitious operations in the east (with a key office in Riga).4 Lohse had helped Göring commandeer over seven hundred pictures from the ERR in Paris, with the then number two man in Nazi Germany never parting with a Pfennig. The young Nazi dealer organized for his powerful patron eighteen of the twenty exhibitions in the elegant Jeu de Paume museum on the Place de la Concorde—shopping sprees, if you will (without the necessity for payment). Göring sauntered among the looted works (or had them presented to him while seated), selecting those he fancied. These exercises in power proved so rife with meaning that even George Clooney and associates used the scene to open the 2014 film Monuments Men: the Cate Blanchett character, who calls to mind French curator and Resistance member Rose Valland, spits in the champagne glasses of the Göring and Lohse characters before serving them their drinks. In real life, Bruno Lohse, due to a long-standing stomach ailment, drank very little alcohol.

During the war, Bruno Lohse felt himself to be the king of Paris. Armed with a pass offering the sweeping support of Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring, he could travel without limitations and buy what he wanted. Nights out at Maxim’s or Schéhérazade (a cabaret very much en vogue during the occupation), silk stockings for his French girlfriends— such was his life until August 1944. One French intelligence report from 1945 stated that Lohse “was without scruples: he had numerous personal affairs in Paris and made a lot of money.”5 He enjoyed considerable independence. As his ERR colleague Walter Borchers testified after the war, “It was known that Dr. Lohse was the special representative of Göring in this taskforce and therefore, in a certain sense, he was feared—not because of his comportment, but because of his direct connection to Göring.”6 Granted, Lohse had a demanding boss, one who competed with Hitler and the other Nazi leaders for Europe’s artistic treasures. The young art dealer, who was a member of the SS (the Schutzstaffel, or Protection Service), also had to answer to Heinrich Himmler, not to mention Alfred Rosenberg and his henchmen, who formally controlled the ERR. Lohse often found himself uncomfortably close to Jewish victims. There was no escaping the fact that he was helping steal their property and that many he plundered faced horrible fates in the east. After the war, some of the ERR staffers attempted to rationalize their behavior, such as Staff Chief Gerhard Utikal, who claimed, “We never felt ourselves to be robbers. We were of the opinion that the art action was carried out according to the law.”7

That said, the linkage between plundering—especially taking a people’s cultural property—and genocide was evident to Lohse and many contemporaries during the war, even if they did not know all the details of what was transpiring.8 When asked in 1947 whether he had participated in the M-Aktion (short for Möbel-Aktion, or “Furniture Action”) that deprived French Jews of their household property, Lohse responded, “Thank God, no! That was a matter for the Ministry of the East, with which the ERR had nothing to do.”9 His vehement denial intimated that he understood the implications of the theft: the processing of victims’ property after they had been deported to the murderous east. In many ways, the plundering of property epitomized the objectives embodied in the Nazis’ “Final Solution”: what Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel has described as “a combination of both perverse, hate-filled idealism and convenient, cheap robbery.”10

From Goering’s Man in Paris: The Story of a Nazi Art Plunderer and His World by Jonathan Petropoulos. Published by Yale University Press in 2021. Reproduced with permission.

Jonathan Petropoulos is the John V. Croul Professor of European History at Claremont McKenna College. He is a Life Member of Clare Hall, University of Cambridge, and a Fellow at the Royal Historical Society.

1 This account of Bruno Lohse’s visit to the Wildensteins’ home in Paris is based on interviews with Peter Griebert, who recalls having been there with Lohse “at least twice in the 1980s,” and with Professor Claus Grimm, Notes to Pages 12–15 307 who also recalls having accompanied Lohse on at least one occasion. Notes on conversation with Peter Griebert, Munich (24 September 2014); and notes on conversation with Prof. Dr. Claus Grimm, Munich (24 September 2014). The quotation in the text came from Claus Grimm, but in the narrative Griebert is the second art dealer.

2 Isaac Kaplan, “The Criminal Case against Billionaire Art Dealer Guy Wildenstein, Explained,” Artsy (4 October 2016), /article/artsy-editorial-the-criminal-case-against-billionaire-dealer-guy -wildenstein-explained.

3 Gina Rarick, “Family Feud Puts Art Trove for Sale,” New York Times (3 June 2005); and the entry on Daniel Wildenstein in the Dictionary of Art Historians, (accessed 15 June 2016).

4 Patricia Kennedy Grimsted, “Reconstructing the Record of Nazi Cultural Plunder: A Guide to the Dispersed Archives of the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR) and the Postwar Retrieval of ERR Loot,” International Institute of Social History Research Paper 47 (2015), https://errproject .org/guide/ERRguideINTRO_10.15.2015.pdf.

5 NARA, M 1944, roll 85, [Rose Valland] entry for Lohse (n.d.). The French reads, “sans scruple. Il a fait à Paris de nombreuses affaires personnelles et a gagné beaucoup d’argent.”

6 Lohse Papers (archive of author), Dr. Walter Borchers, “Statement to Paris Military Tribunal” (30 May 1950).

7 IfZG, ZS 793, interview with Gerhard Utikal (4 April 1947). The German reads, “Wir haben uns niemal als Räuber gefühlt. Wir waren der Meinung, dass die Kunstaktion gesetzmässig ausgeführt wurde.”

8 See Raphael Lemkin, Axis Rule in Occupied Europe: Laws of Occupation, Analysis of Government, Proposals for Redress (Clark, NJ: Lawbook Exchange 1944), which explores the connection between culture and genocide.

9 IfZG, MA 1569/43, interrogation 2242, “Vernehmung von Bruno Lohse durch Joseph Tancos” (24 October 1947).

10 Elie Wiesel, Opening Ceremony Remarks at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (30 November 1998), in J. D. Bindenagel, ed., Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets Proceedings (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1999), 14.

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