How a historian got too close to a Nazi thief

Jonathan Petropoulos had no intention of befriending a Nazi when he was doing research for his book, but soon he was close to an art thief who worked for Hermann Göring, writes Nina Siegal

Sunday 31 January 2021 00:00 GMT
A US soldier inspects priceless art taken from Jews by the Nazis and stashed in the Heilbronn salt mines in Germany, 3 May 1945. The treasures were uncovered by allied forces after the defeat of Nazi Germany
A US soldier inspects priceless art taken from Jews by the Nazis and stashed in the Heilbronn salt mines in Germany, 3 May 1945. The treasures were uncovered by allied forces after the defeat of Nazi Germany (Getty)

By the late 1990s, most of the Nazi art experts who helped loot European Jews were either dead or living quiet lives under the radar. Not so Bruno Lohse, who served as the art agent to Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring, Hitler’s right-hand man.

In 1998, Jonathan Petropoulos, a European history professor at Claremont McKenna College in California, met Lohse in Munich. An effete, imperious figure standing 6ft 4in and weighing over 300lb at the time, Lohse, who had “inextinguishable self-importance”, as Petropoulos writes, welcomed the chance to regale the American scholar with his war stories. Over the next nine years, they met more than two dozen times.

Lohse would often pull out a box of old photographs and mementos, allowing Petropoulos to peer over his shoulder and to pepper him with questions. When Lohse died in 2007 at 96, he bequeathed that box to Petropoulos, who used it as source material for his new book, Göring’s Man in Paris: The Story of a Nazi Art Plunderer and His World, published this week by Yale University Press.

Any relationship between an information-seeking scholar and a former Nazi is bound to be a complicated one, and Petropoulos makes clear in the prologue that he had no intention of befriending Lohse. He acknowledges, however, that he “soon appreciated his charms” and came to enjoy their meetings over liver dumpling soup – which provided the professor with access to a lost world.

“I always tried to keep a certain distance, and there was always an element of a game being played, a cat-and-mouse game,” Petropoulos says in a recent interview. “That game became a little more spirited with time, a little more like catch me if you can.”

In the book, he explains why the conversations were worth pursuing.

“The paper trail for these art plunderers, as for most second-rank figures in Nazi Germany, largely dried up after their interrogations and de-Nazifications in the late 1940s,” Petropoulos writes. “The oral history offered by Lohse and other old Nazis provided one of the few ways to reconstruct the postwar experiences of this cohort.”

Petropoulos used some of this material for his 2000 book, The Faustian Bargain: The Art World in Nazi Germany, and, when potentially incriminating information resulted from the luncheons, he writes that he shared it with the FBI and restitution experts at organisations such as the Art Loss Register. This new book brings Lohse into sharper focus, as a personality and axis point from which to explore a network of art dealers, collectors and museum curators connected to Nazi looting, both during and after the war.

“I think he became more comfortable and secure at a certain point,” Petropoulos says. “I don’t know if he ever opened up with me all that much, but I was always getting little bits and pieces from him.”

Lohse was jailed at the end of the Second World War and investigated. He was tried and acquitted in France in 1950.

Hermann Göring having a meal at the courthouse at Nuremberg in 1946 (Getty)

Lynn Nicholas’s landmark 1994 book on the Third Reich’s pillaging, The Rape of Europa, positions Lohse as one of several agents working for the SS in Paris who controlled “exchanges” of modernist art (which the Nazis called degenerate) for their more prized old masters. Göring’s Man in Paris sets him as one of the primary planets orbiting Göring in a solar system that included Nazi art traders Alois Miedl, Walter Andreas Hofer, Maria Almas Dietrich and Karl Haberstock.

Petropoulos argues not only that Lohse was instrumental in Göring’s looting, but also that he stole many works for himself, keeping some hidden until his death. Petropoulos reports that Lohse was personally involved in emptying Jewish homes and boasted to a German officer that he had beaten Jewish owners to death “with his own hands”.

Lohse returned to the art trade in the 1950s from a new base in Munich, where other former Nazi art experts had also gone back to work, trading mostly within a “circle of trust” in Germany and Switzerland.

Often, these networks linked up with the larger art world. One particularly complex relationship that Petropoulos delves into is between Lohse and Theodore Rousseau, a former officer in the US Art Looting Investigation Unit who later became a deputy director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Petropoulos quotes correspondence between the two over 25 years from the Met’s own archives, suggesting a friendly business relationship.

There is no evidence that Rousseau ever purchased art from Lohse.

As Petropoulos falls down this rabbit hole, ‘Göring’s Man in Paris’ becomes a more complex read, raising questions about reliability in every facet of the art world

“Before 1959, Rousseau was probably using Lohse to gather information, as part of his scouting to find works,” Petropoulos says, “but that may have changed in the 1960s when that relationship became more personal and friendly. We don’t have the whole picture of the iceberg, but we can see the tips of it out there. I put out what I could, and I hope that other researchers will follow up.”

A spokeswoman for the Met said in an email that the museum’s archives contain about 30 letters between Lohse and Rousseau, six of them by Rousseau from 1952 to 1969. She described them as “generally brief, courteous and professional in tone”, and said the Met never purchased any work from Lohse.

What emerges from Petropoulos’s research is a portrait of a charismatic and nefarious figure who tainted everyone he touched. It explores the tangled relationships linking Nazi dealers to scores of other participants in the art trade.

Monika Gruetters (left), the German commissioner for culture and the media, hands over the painting ‘Quai de Clichy’ by French neo-impressionist Paul Signac to a representative of the heirs of Jewish real estate broker Gaston Prosper Levy, as part of the return of art stolen under the Nazis and hoarded by Cornelius Gurlitt, the son of Nazi-era dealer Hildebrand Gurlitt, in Berlin on 3 July 2019 (DPA/AFP/Getty)

The twist of this scholarly enterprise, however, comes when Petropoulos finds himself in the web. In 2000, he became involved in a search for the “Fischer Pissarro”, a Paris street scene by Camille Pissarro stolen from the Vienna home of a prominent German Jewish family and sold at auction in 1940.

The heirs suspected the work might be linked to Lohse and contacted Petropoulos for his help. With the aid of a former Lohse associate, art dealer Peter Griebert, Petropoulos located the work at a private foundation in Liechtenstein – but as it turned out (to his surprise, as he tells it), that foundation was owned by Lohse. It’s unclear how Lohse came into possession of the work.

This “misadventure,” as Petropoulos called it in an article in the Los Angeles Times, led the heirs to accuse him of extorting them for charging fees and a percentage of the sale proceeds. He was never charged with a crime, but Petropoulos stepped down from his position as director of the Centre for the Study of the Holocaust, Genocide, and Human Rights at Claremont McKenna.

The Pierre Auguste Renoir painting ‘Femmes Dans Un Jardin’, stolen by the Nazis in Paris in 1941, was unveiled and returned to the heir of its rightful owner at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York on 12 September 2018 (AFP/Getty)

The college, in a statement, said it conducted an investigation and found that Petropoulos “adhered to applicable contractual and legal obligations” while attempting to aid in recovering the painting. He remains on its faculty. Petropoulos concedes that he should probably not have gotten involved and writes in the book that he never earned any money from the work.

“I was trying to be helpful and achieve a return, but things developed the way they did,” he says.

The chapter that recounts this tale takes a turn into territory reminiscent of Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer, which explores the ethical consequences when a writer gets too close to a source. As Petropoulos falls down this rabbit hole, Göring’s Man in Paris becomes a more complex read, raising questions about reliability in every facet of the art world.

“For me, the greatest ethical challenge arose from the mutual feeling of a sort of friendship that emerged in my relationship with Lohse,” Petropoulos writes. “I told him in no uncertain terms that I thought what he did in the war was reprehensible and I in no way condoned his actions. He seemed unperturbed by this statement – indeed, it brought a smile to his face.”

‘Göring’s Man in Paris: The Story of a Nazi Art Plunderer and His World’ by Jonathan Petropoulos. Yale University Press, £25

© The New York Times

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