In search of Nazi plunder Loyola professor tracks art looted during the Holocaust

December 14, 1998|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

The path leading from artworks looted by the Nazis to their rightful owners often goes through a garret-like office in a building at Loyola College.

There history professor Jonathan Petropoulos keeps the results of six years of combing the archives of European museums and dealers, institutions and individuals -- work that has produced two books and made him a leading authority on the subject.

Two weeks ago, he positively identified a Monet on display at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts as one taken by the Nazis from the Paris gallery of Paul Rosenberg, who fled France in 1940 and whose family still has a gallery in New York. The Rosenbergs are expected to seek recovery of the painting.

Earlier this month, Petropoulos spoke at two international gatherings of officials considering how to recover the loot from the Holocaust, a still-unresolved issue that resonates more than a half-century later.

"When I was in graduate school, it was a matter of documents and archives," Petropoulos said. "Now I have met some of the victims and have some feel for them. There is a human dimension to this history."

There is, it turns out, also a practical dimension to his abstract academic work. It hit home for this 37-year-old California native when he addressed the conference on Holocaust restitution held at the National Archives facility in College Park.

"I was talking and I looked over and saw that Stuart Eizenstat was scribbling furiously," he said, referring to the undersecretary of state who has become the U.S. government's point man on this subject.

"I thought maybe he was going to tell me I was out of time. But then I realized he was taking notes," Petropoulos said. "On what I was saying."

He clearly is more accustomed to Loyola undergraduates taking notes on his lectures than undersecretaries of state. But Eizenstat said Petropoulos should not underestimate his importance.

"His work was seminal in the progress that we made," Eizenstat said.

"The fact that he spoke as an academic expert, someone who did not have an ax to grind, gave him a credibility that was important in influencing the delegates," Eizenstat said, emphasizing that those delegates went on to agree to principles for tracking and returning art that went far beyond his expectations going into the conference.

Said Petropoulos: "It is satisfying to know that my efforts have some practical consequences."

Petropoulos, at once soft-spoken and enthusiastic, said his fascination with World War II dates to his childhood and his father's stories of living in Athens, Greece, under German occupation, of tearing down the swastika flag that flew over the Acropolis when the Nazis fled.

In graduate school at Harvard, he found what every Ph.D. candidate is looking for -- "a gap in the literature" -- when he decided to write about Nazi art collecting: who in the Nazi hierarchy collected what and why.

Three years of scouring the archives in Germany -- "The Nazis were fanatical record-keepers" -- led to his first book, "Art as Politics in the Third Reich," published in 1996.

It was only the first chapter. Three more years in archives led to his second book, due out next spring. "The Faustian Bargain" looks at what Petropoulos calls "the second tier," a group of art professionals -- museum directors, academics, critics -- who could have left, but who agreed to work with the Nazis in return for access to the immense hoards of art they were collecting from across the continent.

"What was chilling was what happened to these people after the war," Petropoulos said. "They were rehabilitated and resumed their careers. They went right back into their professions. They all had very important positions -- museum directors, dealers, academics, critics.

"That's one reason for the book -- they may have avoided justice after the war, but they are not going to get away with it in the eyes of history," he said.

"I must say that I identify with them to some extent. They were academics, intellectuals, professionals. The study poses a question that hit home with me: What would I have done in similar circumstances?"

Though the book focuses on people who are long dead -- German law keeps personal papers sealed for 30 years after a death -- Petropoulos interviewed many living Germans and Austrians who traveled in the Nazi art world.

"Most of them met me for lunch at restaurants. They would not let me into their homes," he said. "I don't think they wanted me to see what was in their personal collections."

Though this book is done, Petropoulos' research continues. The agreements reached at the recent conference should open up more archives and documents. He sees a chance that the advancing age of the people he has met will help as well. "I hope some of them, as they approach the end of their lives, will want to make a full accounting of what they did," he said. "For now, they are still guarded, still secretive. I'm sure there are vaults in Swiss banks that are full of looted art."

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.