Tracking down the spoils of war Treasure hunt: In a chilly, bat-filled cave in German hills, an American salvage specialist is looking for the art stolen by the Nazis from the cities of Europe.

November 16, 1995|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

UFTRUNGEN, Germany -- Deep beneath a green hillside, amid the flutter of bats and the chill of subterranean pools, the solution to a 50-year-old mystery lies buried in a cave's wartime rubble.

Its long-running cast of characters includes gaunt slave laborers, frantic Nazi officers, Soviet troops with dynamite, inquisitive East German secret police and, most recently, German researchers and American salvage experts.

At the heart of the mystery is this question: Did the Nazis drive truckloads of priceless art into this old cave, called the Heimkehle, or are the buried trucks empty, merely the refuse of a destroyed empire?

American salvage specialist Norman Scott arrived in Germany yesterday and hopes to dig up -- literally -- the answer. But his search will be only the latest foray in an international treasure hunt that has widened and gained momentum in the wake of the Cold War. With access open to archives, sites and individuals that were once off-limits, people such as Mr. Scott have been able to pursue new leads and gather new clues from old documents and even older soldiers.

The result, Mr. Scott said, is that "there are so many projects like this I could spend the rest of my life and the rest of my children's lives doing them."

As if to prove his point, after he is finished at the Heimkehle he plans to move on to other sites in eastern Germany. They include the grounds of a castle where he hopes his Florida-based company, Global Explorations, will dig its way into a cellar that no one knew existed until his X-ray equipment indicated hidden chambers.

Then his team hopes to move on to the Russian city of Kaliningrad (known during World War II as the German city of Koenigsburg), where he hopes to find the remains of the legendary "Amber Chamber," an ornate room, knickknacks and all, entirely fashioned out of amber in the early 18th century. Originally it was a gift to the Russian royal family from King Frederick I of Prussia. It has been missing since 1945.

Such hunts are the long-term results of Nazi Germany's plunder of art as its armies swept across Europe in World War II. Trains and trucks hauled millions of paintings, sculptures, icons and other items back to Germany.

But as Allied forces regained the territory and approached the German border, Hitler ordered the loot underground along with Germany's own holdings. The art work ended up in thousands of sites, including mines, castles, monasteries, cellars and bunkers. Some of the most valuable pieces were stored in giant anti-aircraft towers around Berlin.

Soviet armies invading from the east were intent on doing their own looting, partly to get back their own museum losses but also as a way of reaping "war reparations."

The American and British forces approaching from the west dispatched "monuments officers" to sort out the puzzle as each glorious cache was uncovered. They hoped to return as much as possible to rightful homes, even when that happened to be a German museum.

But in the confusion of those days, security wasn't always what it should have been. Shipments were rushed and re-routed, paperwork was occasionally sketchy. Items went missing, sometimes by the trainload. Also, most of the inventory lists compiled then have been destroyed. And, presumably, some Nazi storage sites were never found.

"You never can really say what will be found," said Dr. Klaus Goldmann, chief curator of Berlin's Museum for Pre- and Early History, whose 24-year search for missing art treasures borders on obsession.

Dr. Goldmann's phone rings regularly with new tips -- some of them inevitably from crackpots or con artists. His quest has taken him to the far corners of Germany and Russia for interviews with aging survivors of the era.

One told him of midnight shipments of boxcars filled with suspiciously narrow crates. Another -- a former flak gunner aboard a train -- told him recently of witnessing a loading operation from a barge to a train, directed by a one-armed civilian who stood on the bank of the canal. It was an almost unmistakable reference to the man designated by Hitler to run the art evacuation project.

Dr. Goldmann also searches archives for long-neglected documents and charts, ever hoping to find an aerial photograph of Berlin from a key span of days in the spring of 1945. He scans the photos for telltale barges and boxcars, searching for clues to what became of art-laden caravans that never reached their destinations.

Some skeptics

Plenty of people are skeptical of the value of such work, including those who have done their share of archival digging. Willi Korte, a German researcher now living in Silver Spring, prefers tracking down looted art piece by piece, via the international auction market, or through vague allusions in old U.S. military documents.

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