BOOK REVIEW / Cut price Picassos and cyanide champagne: 'The Rape of Europa' - Lynn H Nicholas: Macmillan, 20 pounds

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The Independent Culture
THIS haunting and original book tells the story of what happened to the great art collections of Europe during Hitler's war. It shows how the Germans relentlessly acquired other people's treasure, whether in the exultation of great conquests or in the abyss of defeat. Rare was the general or gauleiter who did not succumb to the acquisitive urge.

Within a few months of the Nazi takeover in 1933, Hitler and Goebbels defined the objectives of German art, instituted a compulsory Chamber of Culture and set out to purge galleries and homes of 'degenerate' works. Paintings and sculptures flowed onto an eager international market as Jewish collectors sought to export their assets and the regime cashed in on its confiscated loot to raise foreign currency. It would be edifying to record that ethics prevailed over cupidity in the dealing room, but this was not so. The climax came at an auction in Lucerne in 1939, when 126 items by Braque, Van Gogh, Picasso, Klee, and Matisse, among others, went under the hammer. A Brussels banker bought Picasso's Acrobat and Young Harlequin for a song that day, to sell it for over 38 million dollars half a century later. All the Lucerne works had been evicted from German museums and although the proceeds went to the Nazi government, collectors like the American Joseph Pulitzer reassured themselves that they were buying to save the works from destruction: 'To safeguard this art for posterity, I bought - defiantly]'

Such niceties vanished within the year as the Wehrmacht smashed its way across Poland, into the low countries and to the gates of Paris. In its wake came the Kunstschutz, the army's Arts and Monuments Protection Office, and a locust-like swarm of SS officers, party hacks and Germanic art cranks looking for booty. Lynn Nicholas tells with eloquence of curators who took heroic measures to preserve their collections. In besieged Leningrad, half-starving art historians and museum staff huddled in the freezing basement of the Hermitage amid paintings wrapped against the chill, while shells crashed around the ice-coated, empty galleries above.

Individual collectors, especially Jews, tried to fend off confiscation or forced sales at derisory rates in Reichsmarks. But others profited from the panic of war. As German tanks neared Paris, Peggy Guggenheim was snapping up works by Giacometti, Man Ray and Dali, and as Luftwaffe bombs tumbled onto the suburbs she bought Brancusi's famous Bird in Space from the weeping artist. The Hotel Drouot, the famous Parisian auction house, prospered. Between the invasion of Russia and the battle of Stalingrad the Drouot enjoyed its most successful season of the century, crowned by an auction of Cezanne and Degas to a saleroom full of monocles, jackets with the red rosettes of the Legion d'honneur and ladies of a 'very certain age.' It is a tremendous tale of moral equivocation, with more poignant losers than winners. The famous Amsterdam dealer Jacques Goudstikker fled with his young wife, only to fall to his death on the darkened deck of a refugee ship. She came back after the war to find his collection plundered, but never managed to reclaim the pictures sold to Hermann Goering.

It is Goering who strides across the war-torn canvas of this book like a Renaissance robber baron, breaking off from the Battle of Britain to lodge at the Ritz and inspect confiscated Rembrandts and Cezannes at the Jeu de Paume. Goering bullied dealers into easy sales and delighted in beating his Nazi rivals to the spoils, deferring only to Hitler in his love of Vermeer. Himmler, by contrast, was oddly attracted to limpid watercolours.

The rape of Europe's art provides the strongest part of a richly detailed book, though the author takes the story through to its close. As Allied armies and art experts arrived, the plunderers fled or perished. Baron Kurt Von Behr of the Kunstschutz was found dead in full uniform next to the body of his wife, both having toasted the end in vintage 1918 champagne laced with cyanide. There is true material here for a dozen thrillers. But there is also a cleverly understated portrait of the coexistence of mechanised death and sublime art which makes one reflect on the perverse values of man in time of war.