Returning souvenirs of war

SUN JOURNAL

Artifacts: As the battle waned, some American World War II fighters lifted mementos to carry home. Now, decades later, many are giving these treasures back to their rightful owners.

May 24, 2001|By Laura Sullivan | Laura Sullivan,SUN STAFF

LEIPZIG, Germany - In April 1945, as World War II was coming to an end, James W. Jensen, a young assistant signals officer in the Army's V Corps bumped along the German countryside in his military jeep to courier information to commanders waiting in Leipzig.

Allied forces had entered this town in eastern Germany a week earlier, and what he saw was a desolate and bleak city, empty from the recent battle and destroyed by years of war.

After delivering his message of codes and ciphers to the waiting officers, he and several soldiers explored the town and wandered into the town hall, an ornate stone building that had escaped much of the allied bombing. He poked his head into a room strewn with straw and guns, apparently left by fleeing German troops.

In the corner of a once-locked closet that had been kicked open, he spotted a fancy blue case with a golden monogram of the town's crest.

Inside the case was a book, 3 inches thick, embossed in a gold binding with images of Leipzig etched into the cover. Five tales of the town history and more than a hundred testimonials from famous visitors, including Adolf Hitler, covered its pages.

He put the book in his knapsack and took it with him.

Jensen, telling his story earlier this month, says he took the book because he wanted to take it back to Army headquarters at Naumberg for safekeeping. But he found that headquarters had already moved south.

Not wanting to leave the book for the approaching Soviet troops, he says, he decided to ship the 20-pound book to his home, in Bryan, Texas.

So for 56 years, the artifact townspeople here knew as the Golden Book of Leipzig stayed in Texas, where Jensen occasionally looked at the pages and showed the book to dinner guests. And for the same 56 years, Leipzig officials unsuccessfully searched for it, accepting finally that the book, a priceless artifact representing their municipal history as well the darkest period of their past, was gone forever.

Earlier this month, Jensen took the book back to Leipzig. In an official ceremony at which he was welcomed almost as a hero, Jensen said, "I have always known it was a great treasure, and I am happy to return it to you."

Some of the town's residents later joked that they ought to pat him down before he left again.

Jensen is like many other former GIs, who took priceless artifacts from Europe during the waning days of the war and now, a half-century later, want to return them.

U.S. customs officials at the Art Fraud Investigations Center in New York believe some soldiers in Eastern Europe, who knew the Soviets were moving in behind them, took artifacts to protect them. Some soldiers wanted to sell them for money. But most soldiers, they believe, just wanted souvenirs - and often had no idea of the value of what they were taking.

In the past 10 years, dozens of works of art have been returned by former U.S. soldiers, just as Europe continues to sort through art and heirlooms pilfered from the war's victims.

Joseph R. Webber, the Custom Service's special agent in charge in New York, says that as more of the former soldiers die, family members come upon the items and attempt to learn. In some cases, the passage of time persuades the former soldiers to return what they know doesn't belong to them.

"In some cases, people have a fit of conscience and want to return the items," Webber says. Works of art still listed as missing from Europe could be sitting in someone's garage or on their bedroom wall. U.S and European laws require that the items be returned to their rightful owners, but the person returning an object is entitled to a "finder's fee," or 3 percent to 4 percent of the item's value.

If people try to profit from the exchange or refuse to hand over items they know are stolen, the service's Art Fraud Investigations Center gets involved.

There was the case, for example, of a faded, framed painting of Christ that a nun, Sister Rose Mary Phol, took to furniture restorer Frank Vaccaro in New York in 1998. She had had the painting for 26 years but no longer wanted it; she had covered it with a magazine picture. But she asked Vaccaro to restore the frame.

Vaccaro recognized the frame's lattice backing as being from the 16th century. After researching the matter, he discovered the painting was a 1503 work by Jacopo de Barbari, "Bust of Christ," a painting that officials believe American soldiers stole from the Schwartzburg Castle, a summer retreat in Rudolstadt once used by Hitler, in 1945.

Customs officials eventually charged Vaccaro with extortion for allegedly contacting German authorities and demanding a finder's fee for the painting's return. (The charges were later dropped.) The Customs Service seized the painting, which was returned to Germany last December. The painting is now appraised at $5 million.

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