Playing cards offer $25,000 for information on priceless lost WWII art
Art history buffs, eagle-eyed collectors, antiquities experts and members of the general public are invited to join the global hunt for a treasure trove of works of art that have been missing since World War II, with cash rewards of up to $25,000 for helpful information. The buy-in is a single deck of cards.
The Dallas-based nonprofit Monuments Men Foundation for the Preservation of Art has unveiled a specially crafted set of playing cards containing priceless artifacts that were mostly looted by the Nazis, taken as souvenirs by soldiers with light fingers or subjected to forced sales, during the six years of conflict.
The ‘WWII Most Wanted Art’ platform highlights just 52 of the hundreds of thousands of artworks that have yet to be found after what the project’s architects call ‘the greatest theft in history’ “.
The purpose of the platform is to highlight the existence of these works, from Van Gogh to Rembrandt to Caravaggio, and to encourage people to provide information that could lead to their recovery.
The Monuments Men work closely with the FBI and Carabinieri Art Squad in Italy. But instead of involving law enforcement, Monuments Men founder Robert Edsel said that for those who realize they own looted art, “it’s a chance for people to do the right thing, to come forward, to solve the problem”.
Decades after WWII, priceless creations still lie in the desert
The original Monuments Men were part of a larger group commissioned by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1943 in the face of destructive warfare and the widespread and systematic looting of artwork and artifacts in parts of Europe occupied by the Nazis.
Museum curators, scholars and artists, architects and librarians were among the first 24 volunteers who volunteered on the front lines locating and recovering works of art during the war. In the final year of the war, the Monuments Men recovered hundreds of thousands of stolen items, followed by 4,000,000 more in the six years that followed.
But their mission was never completed, which led to the creation of an NGO created in their name and for the same purpose in 2007. The Foundation has since found 30 long-lost masterpieces around the world and reunited them with their legally recognized owners.
The Most Wanted game was created by now-administrator Kevin McGlone, inspired by an American military tradition; decks were produced featuring the most wanted fugitives from the Iraq War and to help soldiers identify WWII aircraft.
Foundation president Anna Bottinelli told Euronews: “We thought it would take six months, but in the end it took almost 24. The more we delved into it, the more we realized that this concept could really be revolutionary.
“There is so much missing artwork. Even if we hired all the detectives in the world, they wouldn’t know where to look. So we have to go in the opposite direction and engage the audience.
What’s on the cards?
The 52 artworks featured in the game are best interpreted as highlights, and by no means the only “most wanted” items, Bottinelli said. Choosing them was an agonizing process, but one guided by strict criteria.
“The works included are those that we have reason to believe survived the war. We don’t waste time on works that we think have been destroyed. Their whereabouts were also to be unknown; none of them are currently the subject of a legal case.
The Monuments Men worked with law enforcement, museums across Europe and legal representatives of potential heirs to compile the final list.
Cards are revealed to the online public in a staggered fashion – four per week, for maximum impact. Avid treasure hunters (and card gamers) can pre-order a set now for shipping in May.
Among the works on display are paintings, drawings and sculptures by Raphael, Degas, Pissarro, Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Emil Nolde, Otto Dix, Caravaggio, Guercino, Cranach the Elder, Canaletto, Memling, Mondrian, Liebermann and Van Dyck . There are also reliquaries and a Persian rug fragment stolen from a bank vault in Hungary.
A total of six of the exhibits were stolen in Italy between 1943 and 1944. Twelve were “confiscated” from Jewish art collectors. Eight disappeared from Germany in the last days of the war. At least eleven are known to have been stolen by German or Soviet armies.
Some have resurfaced at specific times since, including five on the European or American art markets. Six were last known in private collections in Russia, Italy, the United States and Switzerland. One was last known to be in the possession of a member of the Gurlitt family; Hildebrand Gurlitt, who died in 1956, was one of four licensed dealers of “degenerate art” looted by Hitler and Goering.
Advice to potential hoarders: avoid unnecessary legal battles
So far, the Foundation has revealed the contents of five of the 52 cards. One of them is a pastel by the French impressionist Edgar Degas’, Portrait of Ms. Gabrielle Diot (1890), which was “confiscated” from the villa of a former Jewish gallery owner in Floirac, France in September 1940.
After passing through the German Embassy, the pastel ended up in the hands of the Nazi looting organization Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR). It was known that it had been sold to a Swiss collector in 1974. But the dealer refused to divulge his identity.
The others are by Jan Brueghel the Elder Still life with flowersdating from the 16th or 17th century, and that of Emanuel de Witte Interior of a gothic church (1668), both missing in Germany, as well as that of Palma il Vecchio Madonna and Child with Saintsan even older oil painting removed in late 1943 from the Basilica of Santa Maria del Colle in Pescocostanzo, Italy.
The Foundation has also added two wildcards: each includes a set of Nazi photo albums of artwork that Hitler once intended for his future Gemäldegalerie Linz, commonly known as the Führermuseum. The 31-volume set is missing 11 parts.
Based on past experience, says Bottinelli, there is a real possibility that some people who find out — or are reminded — that they have lost artwork that was sold or stolen against their will could still come forward.
“It’s heartwarming to see people do the right thing,” she said, “and voluntarily return something, 70 or 80 years later, because they understand that’s what it’s about.” it takes to turn the page on a horrible part of our recent history.”
It’s not always the case; some refuse, leading to legal action, which Bottinelli says is a waste of time. “You may have something incredibly valuable. But if it’s not yours, it’s worth nothing to you.
“You might as well turn it into a positive and give a family some closure by reuniting them with something that might have been in their family for decades. Lawsuits and legal battles serve no purpose other than to bleed both sides.”
The WWII generation is dwindling, which means that with each passing year, it becomes more and more difficult to locate these important pieces of history. The map project, Bottinelli said, is “the start of something that we hope will be a long and exciting journey. The work is certainly tedious. But if this project results in the recovery of a few, it will be a big success. “