NEW YORK – Bruno Lohse (1911–2007) was one of the most notorious art plunderers in history. Appointed by Hermann Göring to Hitler’s art looting agency in Paris, he went on to help supervise the systematic theft and distribution of more than thirty thousand artworks, taken largely from French Jews, and to assist Göring in amassing an enormous private art collection.
By the 1950s Lohse was officially denazified but was back in the art dealing world, offering masterpieces of dubious origin to American museums. After his death, dozens of paintings by Renoir, Monet, and Pissarro, among others, were found in his Zurich bank vault and adorning the walls of his Munich home.
Jonathan Petropoulos spent nearly a decade interviewing Lohse and continues to serve as an expert witness for Holocaust restitution cases. In his new book, Goering's Man in Paris: The Story of a Nazi Art Plunderer and His World, set to be released on January 26, Petropoulos tells the story of Lohse’s life, offering a critical examination of the postwar art world.
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,” the New York Times reported, adding that Petropoulos writes “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.’”
“The twist of this scholarly enterprise, however, comes when Petropoulos finds himself in the web,” the Times reported, noting that “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,” the Times reported, adding that “with the aid of a former Lohse associate, the 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.”
According to the Times, Petropoulos called it a “misadventure” in an article in The Los Angeles Times which “led the heirs to accuse him of extorting them for charging fees and a percentage of the sale proceeds.”
Though Petropoulos “was never charged with a crime,” he “stepped down from his position as director of the Center for the Study of the Holocaust, Genocide, and Human Rights at Claremont McKenna,” the Times reported, noting that this chapter in the book raises “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, the Times reported. “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.”
Petropoulos is the John V. Croul Professor of European History at Claremont McKenna College in Southern California. Previously, he received his PhD from Harvard University (1990), where he also had an appointment as a Lecturer in History. He began working on the subject of Nazi art looting and restitution in 1983, when he commenced my graduate work in history and art history.
Petropoulos is the author of Art as Politics in the Third Reich (University of North Carolina Press, 1996); The Faustian Bargain: The Art World in Nazi Germany (Oxford University Press, 2000); and Royals and the Reich: The Princes von Hessen in Nazi Germany (Oxford University Press, 2006); as well as co-editor of a number of volumes, including A User's Guide to German Cultural Studies (University of Michigan Press, 1997), and Gray Zones: Amibuity and Compromise in the Holocaust and its Aftermath (Berghahn Books, 2005). He has also helped organize art exhibitions, including Degenerate Art: The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany, which opened at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1991 and appeared in a number of films, including Rape of Europa (2006) the documentary based on Lynn Nicholas’ 1994 book on the Third Reich’s art plundering, The Rape of Europa.
From 1998 to 2000, Petropoulos served as Research Director for Art and Cultural Property on the Presidential Commission on Holocaust Assets in the United States, where he helped draft the report, Restitution and Plunder: The U.S. and Holocaust Victims' Assets (2001). In this capacity as Research Director, he supervised a staff of researchers who combed archives in the United States and Europe in order to understand better how representatives of the U.S. government (including the Armed Forces) handled the assets of Holocaust victims both during and after the war. As Research Director, he provided expert testimony to the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport in the U.K. House of Commons and to the Banking and Finance Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Petropoulos has served as an expert witness in a number of cases where Holocaust victims have tried to recover lost artworks. This includes Altmann v. Austria, which involved five paintings by Gustav Klimt claimed by Maria Altmann and other family members. Mrs. Altmann was born and raised in Vienna and her family had its art collections seized after the Anschluss.
Goering's Man in Paris: The Story of a Nazi Art Plunderer and His World by Jonathan Petropoulos is available online.