RIHA Journal 0283 | 15 September 2023

Collecting Classical Antiquities among the Nazi Elite

Irene Bald Romano

Classical antiquity was appropriated by the Nazis and held up as the ideal in the rhetoric, propaganda, art, and architecture of National Socialism. In this article the rhetoric and preference for the classical aesthetic are examined against the practice of collecting antiquities among the Nazi elite, especially by Hitler and Göring. It would seem evident that Greek and Roman antiquities would have been much desired by Hitler and the upper echelons of the Nazi party and would have been sought after in the quest for great works of art for museums in the Reich, especially for the “Führermuseum” in Linz. Yet, there is only limited evidence to show that this was, in fact, the case. Insights and explanations for this discrepancy are gleaned from synthesizing the evidence for collecting classical antiquities during the Nazi era.

National Socialism and the appropriation of classicism
Hitler’s antiquities
An Apulian column krater as a gift to Hitler
The Lancellotti Discobolus
Göring’s collection and the Capitoline Venus from Leptis Magna
Ancient art for the “Führermuseum” in Linz
The plunder of antiquities from the National Archaeological Museum, Naples


[1] Much has been written about Hitler’s interest in Greek and Roman antiquity and its appropriation under National Socialism1, but the question that has not been asked is this: Do the rhetoric/propaganda and preference for the classical aesthetic match what we know about the practice of collecting antiquities among the Nazi elite? It would seem evident that classical antiquities, in particular, would have been much desired by Hitler and the upper echelons of the Nazi party, would have been on center stage in “art as politics” under National Socialism, and would have been much sought after in the quest for great works of art for museums in the Reich, especially for the “Führermuseum” in Linz. Yet, there is only limited evidence to show that this was, in fact, the case2. At first glance this discrepancy is difficult to comprehend, but there are various insights that can be gleaned from an examination of what we know about the collecting of classical antiquities during the Nazi era, especially by Hitler and Göring.

National Socialism and the appropriation of classicism

[2] There was a degree of tension and inconsistency with regard to the role of the ancient world and archaeology in the ideology of National Socialism. The ideological guru Alfred Rosenberg and Heinrich Himmler, for example, looked within prehistoric Europe for both theoretical and material evidence for the origins of the Aryan race3. Prehistoric European archaeology, therefore, was regarded as more fertile ground than classical archaeology for finding evidence of a superior Nordic/Germanic race. On the other hand, Adolf Hitler held a strong bias toward the ancient Greek world and its aesthetics. Greek and Roman history, classical architecture, and classical iconography were consciously appropriated as models for National Socialist ideals, and Hitler positioned himself in the lineage of German philhellenes such as Ludwig I of Bavaria (r. 1825–1848)4. Greek and Roman historical or mythological iconography was preferred in paintings and tapestries, especially for public places, such as the New Chancellery of the Reich in Berlin, and artists such as Arno Breker and Josef Thorak were commissioned to interpret Hellenism in their modern, neoclassical works of sculpture.

[3] Hitler’s speeches, his so-called Table Talk, and Mein Kampf are filled with references to the ancient world and, especially, to the link between Hellenism and “German-ness”5.

Especially in historical instruction we must not be deterred from the study of antiquity. Roman history correctly conceived in extremely broad outlines is and remains the best mentor, not only for today, but probably for all time. The Hellenic ideal of culture should also remain preserved for us in its exemplary beauty. We must not allow the greater racial community to be torn asunder by the differences of the individual peoples. The struggle that rages today is for very great aims. A culture combining millenniums and embracing Hellenism and Germanism is fighting for its existence6.

What makes the Greek ideal of beauty a model is the wonderful combination of the most magnificent physical beauty with brilliant mind and noblest soul7.

[4] The celebration of the Olympic Games in Berlin in 1936 was the perfect opportunity to showcase the supposed connection between ancient Greece and modern Germany—and ancient Greeks and the Aryan race. Acting on propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels’s idea, a Greek theater modeled on the ancient theater at Epidaurus was included in the Olympic complex, the Dietrich-Eckart-Bühne (named after a well-known anti-Semite and one of the founders of the Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, and eventually renamed the Waldbühne)8. A special exhibition of Greek art, “Sport der Hellenen, was mounted in the Deutsches Museum (housed in the north wing of today’s “Pergamonmuseum”) on the Museum Island in Berlin in connection with the modern games; it comprised 157 objects, including original works of ancient art from German museums and modern copies of other objects in Athens, Delphi, Naples, Florence, Rome, London, New York, and Boston9. Perhaps nothing, however, epitomizes the public demonstration of the false link between ancient Greece and Nazi Germany more so than the 1936 Olympic torch relay, with the torch lit by a Greek maiden from a flame at the site of Olympia as an Olympic ode of Pindar was recited to the tones of ancient Greek music, followed by the German national anthem and the Nazi Sturmabteilung’s (SS) marching song, the “Horst-Wessel-Lied”; the torch was then carried by some 3,000 runners across southeastern and central Europe to the Olympic stadium in Berlin10. Archaeology and the site of Olympia were further exploited by the Nazis when Hitler announced at the opening ceremony of these Olympic Games the renewal of the German Archaeological Institute’s excavations at Olympia (on hold since 1929), subsequently described as the “Führergrabung”11.

[5] The catalog and posters for the “Große Deutsche Kunstausstellungen” (Great German Art Exhibitions) in Munich from 1937 to 1944 featured the helmeted head of Athena as the symbol of the exhibition (Fig. 1), and the exhibition was kicked off by a Day of German Art featuring a Roman-style grandiose triumphal parade with youth marching in ancient costumes and a float bearing the colossal head of Pallas Athena12. Hitler referred to the role of antiquity in modern (German) life in his speech at the opening of the 1937 exhibition: “Humanity has never been nearer to antiquity than it is today in appearance and its sense of purpose”13.

Fig. 1. Covers of the catalogs for the “Great German Art Exhibition”, Munich 1937 and Munich 1938. University of Arizona Libraries, Tucson, Special Collections (photograph by the author)

[6] Munich’s Königsplatz, a prime example of 19th-century neoclassicism, framed by Leo von Klenze’s Glyptothek and Propylaea, and Georg Friedrich Ziebland’s Antikensammlung, was transformed into a sort of “Acropolis Germaniae” under the Nazi regime. After the lawns were replaced by slabs and “temples of honor” were added to house the sarcophagi of the “martyrs of the National-Socialist revolution” who died in the failed Beer Hall putsch of 1923, it was used for the staging of elaborate Nazi pageants14. At the same time, the Roman Empire with its military might, its feats of engineering, and its monumental architecture provided Hitler with a model for German world power, as well as architectural and civic planning prototypes, especially endorsed and promoted by his Italian Fascist ally15. Albert Speer, Paul Troost, Hermann Giesler, Roderick Fick, and other Nazi architects were commissioned to design suitably grandiose buildings and cityscapes inspired by ancient Rome, while consciously rejecting the modern Bauhaus style16.

Hitler’s antiquities

[7] While there is a great deal of information about Adolf Hitler’s painting collection, a comprehensive list of antiquities in his collection is lacking17. Some classical antiquities were exchanged within the well-orchestrated culture of gift giving among the upper echelons of the Nazi party. Hitler’s birthday on April 20 was an especially important occasion to present the “Führer” with gifts that would appropriately demonstrate that the gift giver shared Hitler’s vision and tastes, including for the classical ideal18. A large collection of antiquities that included a Greek grave relief from Thasos19, two ceramic East Greek sima fragments with relief decoration, ancient coins, and Greek and Roman jewelry were confiscated from Paul and Andy von Zsolnay, Jewish owners of a prominent Viennese publishing company. Bernhard Witke, a Gestapo treasurer and appraiser working with VUGESTA (Gestapo Office for the Disposal of the Property of Jewish Emigrants), was named trustee of the collection after the von Zsolnays fled to London20, and ten items were handed over to Hans Posse, the first head of the “Sonderauftrag Linz”, to be given as birthday gifts to Hitler in April 1940. These included pairs of Hellenistic gold earrings, finger rings, a gold diadem, and a gold necklace21. Hermann Voss, Posse’s successor as head of the “Sonderauftrag Linz”, presented Hitler with an ancient silver diadem and a gold diadem for his birthday in 1944. These had been purchased by Voss from Karl W. Bümming (1899–1963), an American-born, German-American Nazi dealer based in Darmstadt and working as a business partner with the dealer/auctioneer Theodor Fischer in Lucerne22. Bümming’s source for the items is not known, and we also do not know what happened to them or to most of Hitler’s birthday gifts of antiquities23.

An Apulian column krater as a gift to Hitler

[8] Well-publicized and -choreographed exchanges of meaningful diplomatic gifts between heads of state during this period included the presentation of classical antiquities24. For example, on the occasion of Hitler’s first state visit to Rome in 1938, among the 20 gifts presented to him by Mussolini, the Italian Fascist Party, and Italian royal family members were a silver replica of the famed bronze Capitoline She-wolf, whether Etruscan, medieval, Renaissance or a pastiche25, a symbol of Rome and the Fascists, and a fourth-century BC Greek South Italian (Apulian) red-figure column krater, formerly in the hands of Giuseppe Sisto from Ceglie and a professor of history and geography at the University of Bari. Sisto unsuccessfully tried to sell this vase in October 1937 to the well-known Greek vase specialist John Beazley for the collection at Oxford University, and in a letter to Beazley Sisto says the vase was excavated in Lucania26. We may never know its exact provenience, but it almost certainly came from a tomb context in Southern Italy, possibly in Ceglie27. Sisto’s shady archaeological activities were exposed in 2007 when his grandson in the US turned over antiquities and other cultural objects to the FBI that his grandfather and father had illicitly exported from Italy28.

[9] The moment of the presentation of the South Italian Greek vase on 4 May 1938 with an array of leading Nazi and Fascist leaders was captured by Hitler’s official photographer, Heinrich Hoffmann, and publicized in the Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung (BIZ), a mouthpiece for Goebbels’s Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda29. In the caption for the photograph in the BIZ, as well as in Hoffmann’s photo book memorializing Hitler’s trip to Italy, the vase is labeled “Etruscan”30 (Fig. 2). This misidentification of a Greek work for an Etruscan one might well be attributed to Hoffmann’s ignorance31 or to the confusion in the 1930s about who the Etruscans were and the identity of the craftsmen responsible for the black-figure and red-figure vases found in Etruria, Magna Graecia, and elsewhere in Italy32. It seems from the Hoffmann photograph that Joseph Goebbels was giddily eager to accept the gift, while Hitler was busy (to the right) examining what appears to be another antiquity, possibly a fragment of a Greek kylix33.

Fig. 2. Red-figured Apulian column krater presented to Joseph Goebbels and Adolf Hitler by Mussolini (with his back to the camera) on 9 May 1938 in Rome, labeled by Hoffmann “an Etruscan vase” (photograph reprod. from Heinrich Hoffmann, Hitler in Italien, Munich 1938, 65)

[10] Hoffmann’s commentary in the BIZ, as well as the details of Hitler’s schedule for 4 May 1938, explains the propaganda minister’s glee. It is recorded that at 11:00 a.m. in a small memorial chapel in the Palazzo Littorio, home of the Fascist Party, Hitler was presented with “eine antike Vase mit Hakenkreuzen aus dem 4. Jahrhundertv. Chr.” (an ancient vase with swastikas of the fourth century BC)34. The interest in the vase was, therefore, probably not in whether it was Greek or Etruscan but in the two swastika motifs depicted as large clothing ornaments on the breast and lower torso of a native Oscan youth, second from left on the obverse of the vase, wearing a very short, belted chitoniskos and chlamys and holding a nestoris35 (Fig. 3a). The swastika motif was a typical ornament on the garments of native Italic warriors in South Italian vase painting iconography36, but it is interpreted in this case by the Nazis as a link between antiquity and National Socialism and possibly between Fascism and Nazism. Presumably, the vase was taken to Germany in 1938, but we do not know where it went (perhaps to the Führerbau, Hitler’s office building near the Königsplatz in Munich37), what happened to it during or at the end of the war (destroyed or looted?), or where it might be today38. In 1961, never having seen the vase but using photographs of both sides of it—probably (cropped) copies of the photos Sisto had sent to Beazley—South Italian Greek vase specialists Cambitoglou and Trendall published the krater as that of one of the early Apulian vase painters, the Tarporley Painter (360–340 BC)39 (Fig. 3b).

Fig. 3a. Obverse of red-figured Apulian column krater given to Hitler by Mussolini and the Italian Fascist Party in Rome on 9 May 1938 (photograph sent by Giuseppe Sisto to John Beazley, 8 October 1937, in: University of Oxford, Classical Art Research Centre, Beazley Archive)

Fig. 3b. Red-figured Apulian column krater given to Hitler by Mussolini and the Italian Fascist Party in Rome on 9 May 1938 (reprod. from: A. Cambitoglou and A. D. Trendall, Apulian Red-Figured Vase-Painters of the Plain Style, New York 1961, pl. 12, figs. 55-56)

The Lancellotti Discobolus

[11] Also directly resulting from Hitler’s 1938 trip to Rome was the most notable acquisition of an ancient work of art during the National Socialist era—a Roman copy of Myron’s fifth-century BC Discobolus, found on 14 March 1781 on the property of the Massimo (later Lancellotti) family at their Renaissance Villa Palombara on the Esquiline Hill in Rome; the statue was almost certainly originally part of the decorative program of a Roman villa or imperial palace on that site40 (Fig. 4). When the financially bereft Lancellotti family made the statue actively available for sale after January 193741, intense interest was expressed by various foreign entities, including the Nazi government and The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (The Met), the latter of which had, in fact, been vitally interested in it for nearly two decades. Documents in the files of The Met’s Greek and Roman Department and archives show its deep interest in acquiring the statue as early as August–September 1917, and internal discussions about the possible acquisition continued in 1918, 1920, 1925, 1930, and into 1936. On 4 May 1936 it was recorded that the asking price had reached four million lire. On 5 May 1936 curator of the Greek and Roman Department Gisela Richter sent a letter and dossier to Herbert E. Winlock, The Met’s director (1932–1939), in which she wrote:

We have long tried to acquire this statue. There is no doubt that it would be a very desirable acquisition and one that would give great prestige to the Museum. As you well know, it is a world-famous piece, the best and most complete copy of Myron’s celebrated bronze Discobolus (c. 450 B.C.). I think we ought to make a great effort to acquire it. It is just the sort of thing that our collection—and the Museum—needs. Mr. Brummer thought that perhaps Mr. Rockefeller might help. Perhaps we can talk it over.

The dossier continues with references to the statue in letters to and from John Marshall (buying agent for The Met in Rome), Edward Robinson (director 1910–1931), and Richter—its quality, the price the museum might expect to pay the “very difficult” Lancellotti family, who “could not agree among themselves to sell”—and indicating that the Lancellottis expected to realize at least $100,000 for the statue42.

Fig. 4. Lancellotti Discobolus. Roman marble copy of Myron’s fifth-century BC statue, H. 1.55 m. Museo Nazionale Romano, Palazzo Massimo, Rome, inv. 126371 (photograph from Wikimedia Commons)

[12] On 1 February 1937 Richter sent an official request to the museum’s director and Committee on Purchase to receive permission to start the negotiations for the statue at $200,000 with a cap of $300,000, including export fees, even though the last price sought by the sellers was supposedly as high as the equivalent of $700,000. Joseph Brummer was to act as The Met’s purchasing agent through the Roman antiquities’ dealers, the Jandolos, who were said “to have special pull” (presumably with the Lancellottis)43. Yet, The Met’s committee did not act on the proposal44. Despite Richter’s efforts to get approval for the purchase, there was a lack of clarity about the correct amount to offer the Lancellotti family, and The Met moved too slowly. Richter was still trying on 23 April 1938 to get the director to authorize a check for $250,000 so their agents could buy the statue outright from the Lancellottis45, but The Met was disappointed to learn that the German government had purchased the statue on 18 May 1938 for five million lire ($252,000, as calculated later by the US Office of Military Government [OMGUS]).

[13] The Italian Supreme Council on Antiquities and Fine Arts and the Minister of Education, Giuseppe Bottai, had officially denied the request for exportation of the statue on the basis that it was protected under Law 364/190946. Nevertheless, Mussolini forced the hand of Bottai by tacitly approving an export waiver and not stepping in to deny its export47. The German government paid an additional 1,485,000 lire in export tax ($74,844) for a total equivalent of around $326,844 for the acquisition48. Carl Weickert, director of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (1934–1945), had taken the lead in making arrangements for this purchase. Yet, it was only when he arrived in Rome to settle the matter that he learned that Hitler had ordered the statue to be sent to Munich, leaving the Berlin museum with only a plaster cast49.

[14] The Discobolus arrived in Germany on 29 June 1938 and was put on display by 10 July 1938 in the Munich Glyptothek, just as the Bavarian philhellene Ludwig I had envisioned it some 100 years earlier (Fig. 5, and see historic colour slide introducing the table of contents of this special issue)50. Hitler must have been aware that the nearly complete statue had once been sought by Ludwig I for his collections, making Hitler’s personal appeal to Mussolini to allow Germany to purchase it all the more meaningful and urgent51. Hitler dispelled (or disguised) any notion that the statue would enter his personal collection by emphasizing in a speech on 10 July that the acquisition was made for the German people52. In that speech Hitler refers to the ideal beauty of the Discobolus as a model for German art:

And may all of you take this to heart as a standard for the tasks and accomplishments of our time. May you all strive for the beauty and perfection so that you shall also stand the test of time both before the Volk and [before] the ages53.

Fig. 5. Adolf Hitler in the Munich Glyptothek with the Lancellotti Discobolus, 10 July 1938 (photograph from Library of Congress, Washington, DC, Prints and Photographs Division, lot 2970)

[15] The Discobolus statue made a prominent appearance, morphing into a human discus thrower, near the beginning of Leni Riefenstahl’s highly propagandistic 1938 film Olympia, documenting the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games54. Photographic evidence shows that Riefenstahl was filming this scene in the dunes of the Curonian Spit with a copy of the Discobolus on 30 September 1936, nearly two years before the acquisition of the Lancellotti Discobolus55. The film was first released in Germany on Hitler’s birthday on 20 April 1938, about a month before the Nazis’ purchase of the statue. The inclusion of a copy of the statue in Riefenstahl’s film and the film’s release date during the negotiations for the statue’s purchase must have incentivized its acquisition. At the same time, that purchase would have enhanced the propaganda value of the film.

[16] The Lancellotti Discobolus remained in Germany for 10 years, though during the bombing of Munich, when the Glyptothek was badly destroyed, it must have been in a protected storage location and not on display. The statue was ordered to be returned, somewhat controversially, to Italy on 16 November 1948, along with 17 other works of art in a repatriation that Allied authorities called an “Exceptional Return of Works of Art”56 (Fig. 6). Rodolfo Siviero, Italy’s postwar representative seeking the repatriation of art taken from Italy since 1937, pushed hard for the return of the Discobolus and other works of art, all of which had been purchased by the National Socialist government, on the grounds that the export permits were illegal and violated the law of 190957. On the German side, there were letters of protest and calls for the repeal of the decision directed to OMGUS and President Truman in 1948 and 1949, and arguments were still being formulated in March 1950 about why the restitution was unjustified and the decision incorrect58. Herbert S. Leonard resigned his position as director of the Munich Central Collecting Point (CCP) over this matter59. One wonders if the same decision to return the Discobolus to Italy would have been reached if The Met had succeeded in purchasing the statue60. The Lancellotti Discobolus was included both in the 1950 Palazzo Venezia exhibition in Rome of works of art recovered from Germany and in an analogous exhibition in 1952 in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence61 before finally being installed in 1953 in the Museo Nazionale Romano in Rome; it remains on display today in the museum’s main location, the Palazzo Massimo alle Terme62.

Fig. 6. "Exceptional Return of Works of Art" document signed by Dr. H. K. Rothel, curator at the Bayerischen Staatsgemäldesammlungen in Munich. Number 18 on the list is the Lancellotti Discobolus. Bayerisches Hauptstaatsarchiv, Munich, 17a13/6, MK 51500: Akten des Bayer. Staatsministeriums für Unterricht und Kultus, Einziehung u. Restitution von Kunstwerken im einzelnen, vol. 1, p. 5 (photograph by the author)

Göring’s collection and the Capitoline Venus from Leptis Magna

[17] After Hitler, Hermann Göring held the second-largest privately-owned art collection in Nazi Germany, with some 4,350 works acquired between around 1928 and 1945. Only a fraction of these (ca. 71 objects) were antiquities, while another 12 or more were modern copies of famous ancient works63, including the so-called Terme Ruler in the Museo Nazionale Romano64 and the pair of bronze deer from the Villa dei Papiri at Herculaneum in the Naples Archaeological Museum; the originals were later stolen by the 1st Paratroop Panzer Division “Hermann Göring” and brought to Göring’s country estate of Carinhall65. One of the replicas of the deer appears in 5 July 1935 photographs of Hitler and Göring together at Carinhall66 (Fig. 7), while copies of the pair are shown in the background of a 5 April 1936 photograph of Göring with his pet lion cub67. In both cases the deer are displayed outdoors on a wall surrounding a patio, but in other photos they also appear in other locations, suggesting that Göring may have had more than one set of copies.

Fig. 7. Göring and Hitler at Carinhall with a copy of one of the pair of bronze deer from the Villa dei Papiri, Herculaneum, on the wall, 5 July 1935 (photograph from Library of Congress, Washington, DC, Prints and Photographs Division, Göring Photo Albums, lot 3128, vol. 9, p. 7, no. 1)

A copy of one of the bronze runners from the Villa dei Papiri is shown along a pathway at Carinhall in photos of 7 July 193968 (Fig. 8).

Fig. 8. Göring walking with a Bulgarian minister at Carinhall with a bronze replica of one of the runners from the Villa dei Papiri, Herculaneum, along the side of the path, 7 July 1939 (photograph from Library of Congress, Washington, DC, Prints and Photographs Division, Göring Photo Albums, lot 3128, vol. 33, p. 96, no. 8)

In addition, reproductions (in bronze) of the marble Ludovisi Ares, Versailles Diana, and Apollo Belvedere are shown outdoors against a stone wall of a wing of Carinhall69, while copies in bronze of the bust of Artemis from the Villa dei Papiri and of Athena Lemnia are displayed indoors70.

[18] Among Göring’s collection of ancient Roman sculptures71 is one that was presented to him in November 1938 by Italo Balbo, the Fascist governor of Libya, acting on behalf of Mussolini72. This gift was a Roman copy of a Capitoline Venus type, discovered in 1924 in excavations of the Hadrianic bath complex in Leptis Magna conducted by Italian archaeologists and supported by Mussolini’s Fascist government73 (Fig. 9). It functioned both as a personal gift to Göring and as a diplomatic gift for Germany, serving to cement the ties between the two powers and to illustrate the (faux) ancient origins of both Fascism and Nazism74.

Fig. 9. Capitoline Venus from Leptis Magna. Since 1999 in the Jamahiriya Museum, Tripoli, Libya (photograph by the author, 2005)

[19] Photographs of Göring’s Carinhall (ca. 1940) show the Venus statue displayed indoors in an opening along a long gallery that served as a main artery and a public showcase of Göring’s collection75 (Fig. 10). When the bombing of Berlin put Carinhall in danger, in February 1945 Göring began to move the most valuable of his art collections to southern Germany, especially to a bunker at his residence in Veldenstein76 and to the Altaussee mines in Austria, leaving behind some objects, including some antiquities that were later recovered, such as Greek vases77, very large paintings, and some of the heavier pieces such as marble sculptures; the latter were said to have been buried in a bunker near the estate78. The Venus from Leptis Magna was one of those sculptures left behind at Carinhall, according to the report written in September 1945 by Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFAA) officer Theodore Rousseau Jr. indicating that it had been recovered by that date79. Documentation of the specific details of its rediscovery, however, has not been found80. The Bergungsamt beim Magistrat von Groß-Berlin (Salvage Office of the Magistrate of Greater Berlin), directed by Kurt Reutti, turned over the statue in or around 1947 to the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, and the Antikensammlung took custody of it along with other ancient objects whose ownership was unknown or unclear81. In 1950 a report records the location of the statue as “Am Kupfergraben, im Freien stehend” (standing outdoors on the Museum Island side facing the street “Am Kupfergraben”)82.

Fig. 10. Capitoline Venus from Leptis Magna displayed in the Festhalle of Göring’s estate at Carinhall, ca. 1940 (photograph print stamped "Robert", in Library of Congress, Washington, DC, Prints and Photographs Division, lot 3810-1)

[20] In Morozzi and Paris’s 1995 account of works of art lost from Italy during World War II, the Venus is recorded as “Dono di Balbo a Goering; illecitamente esportata nel 1940”, suggesting that Balbo and Mussolini had no right to give the statue away or allow it to be exported from Italian-controlled territory to Germany83. There is no reference in Morozzi and Paris to the end of Italian colonial rule in Libya following the Axis’s defeat there in 1943, to the establishment of an independent state in 1951, or to who should claim cultural property removed from Libya84. Indeed, there were no provisions for the return of cultural materials in the treaty that ended Italian colonial rule in Libya85. Rather than repatriating the statue directly to Libya, the Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz turned it over to Italy on 22 July 1999. Though this repatriation came seven months after the Washington Conference Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art of December 1998, to which both Germany and Italy were signatories86, there was no reference to the Washington Principles in the speeches and reports of the repatriation; instead, it was reported that Germany’s decision to repatriate the Venus statue and two other ancient sculptures was in the spirit of the Wiesbaden Manifesto, a 1945 MFAA document citing “obligations to common justice, decency, and the establishment of the power of right, […] among civilized nations”87. Mario Bondioli-Osio, president of the Italian interministerial commission responsible for stolen art, emphasized in his speech at the repatriation ceremony the “moral, political and judicial significance” of the repatriation and highlighted that this was the first repatriation from Germany to Italy since those immediately after World War II, for which the famed Rodolfo Siviero was responsible88. Five months later, in December 1999, Italy repatriated the Venus statue to Libya, meeting its obligations under a 1998 bilateral agreement between Italy and Libya to make amends for Italy’s colonial occupation and to return manuscripts, documents, monuments, and archaeological objects89. The statue was put on display in the Jamahiriya Museum in Tripoli, where it remains today (Fig. 9).

Ancient art for the “Führermuseum” in Linz

[21] If we examine the documentation and existing plans for Hitler’s favorite project, the never-realized “Führermuseum” in Linz, we find that ancient art played a very minor or no role. In the database of the “Sonderauftrag Linz” there are 6,700 entries for works of art that Hitler’s agents acquired between the end of the 1930s and 1945, the majority of which are paintings, sculptures, furniture, porcelain, and tapestries90. We know that the list is not complete; nevertheless, it is significant that there are only around 30 entries for antiquities—a hodgepodge of Greek and Roman sculptures, vases, bronze and terracotta figurines, jewelry, and gems. In the Munich CCP database, there are many more Greek or Roman objects that are marked with Linz numbers, however—the majority of them coins91. We know that a numismatic collection was developed for a coin cabinet in the Linz complex, and it included a small number of ancient Greek and Roman coins92. In the photo albums prepared for Hitler, highlighting works of art for the Linz museum, only seven antiquities are included93 (Figs. 11a, 11b). This corroborates the conclusion that ancient art was not a high priority for the Linz museum itself. Among the tens of thousands of works of art confiscated in France and Belgium by the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR) and held in the Jeu de Paume in Paris, only 53 were designated for Hitler’s private collection or for the Linz museum. None of these are antiquities94.

[22] One of the ancient objects shown in the Linz album is a Roman mosaic with a scene of the Rape of Europa, found in 1676 in ancient Praeneste, modern Palestrina, east of Rome, and exhibited from 1691 until 1934 in the Palazzo Barberini in Rome (see Fig. 11a, upper left; Fig. 11c). In June 1941 the mosaic was sold to the “Sonderauftrag Linz” for 150,000 lire by the Barberini family through the Roman art dealership Galleria Sangiorgi. It was shipped to Munich with an export permit and stored with the Linz collections95. The mosaic was moved to the mines in Altaussee, where it was recovered by the Allies and sent to the CCP in Munich. According to the CCP catalog cards, the mosaic was turned over in June 1949 to the Bavarian minister president for further investigation and management of its disposition, along with many other collections remaining in the CCP96. In 1968 it was sent to the Landesmuseum für Kunst und Kulturgeschichte in Oldenburg (inv. LMO 14.008), where it remains today on loan from the Federal Republic of Germany97.

Figs. 11a, 11b. Antiquities in Linz album XX. Album on loan from the Federal Office for Central Services and Unresolved Property Issues (BADV) to the Deutsches Historisches Museum, Berlin (photographs reprod. from Birgit Schwarz, Hitlers Museum: Die Fotoalben Gemäldegalerie Linz: Dokumente zum "Führermuseum", Vienna 2004, 327-328, with permission of Birgit Schwarz)

Fig. 11c. Barberini mosaic of The Rape of Europa, Roman period, from ancient Praeneste. Landesmuseum für Kunst und Kulturgeschichte, Oldenburg, LMO 14.008 (© Landesmuseum für Kunst und Kulturgeschichte Oldenburg; photograph by Sven Adelaide, courtesy of Marcus Kenzler)

[23] Prince Philipp von Hessen, great-grandson of Queen Victoria and husband of Princess Mafalda, daughter of King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy, was an enthusiastic member of the Nazi Party from 1930 and a major art agent for the Nazis in Italy, especially for purchases for the Linz Museum from 1940 to 194298. According to an inventory of May 1942, he spent more than 40 million lire (5,022,467 Reichsmark) in Italy for acquisitions for the Linz museum. In 1939 Philipp von Hessen also gave assistance to Göring in some of his acquisitions in Italy, including for the purchase of a marble female statue99. In 1941 he tried to acquire for the Nazis the more famous Nilotic mosaic found in Praeneste and belonging to the Barberini family. He was foiled in his attempt to secure this prize for Germany when the Italian minister of education, Giuseppe Bottai, refused to allow an export permit for it on the basis that it was a nationally important work of art protected under the new cultural heritage law of 1939100. Today the mosaic is in the Museo archeologico prenestino, housed in Palazzo Colonna Barberini in Palestrina.

[24] Schwarz makes it clear in her exhaustive study of the Linz museum that there was never a plan on the part of either Hans Posse, the first head of the “Sonderauftrag Linz” (July 1939–1942)101, or Hermann Voss (1942–1945)102, the second head, to make it an encyclopedic museum with the best art of all periods represented. Even though Hitler initially wished to have prehistoric and ancient art at the beginning of the exhibits, Posse had more practical considerations103. In an October 1939 memo Posse outlines his concept for the museum and notes that it would not be possible, even with major resources, to put together a universal art collection from antiquity to modern times and that only an introduction would be possible for the earlier periods, especially of the Germanic and Migration (Early Medieval) periods. The concept was for the ground floor to display art from the 12th through 18th centuries, while the upper floor would be devoted to 19th-century Austrian and German painting. Posse understood it would be hopeless to try to compete with Munich or Vienna to create a comprehensive museum104.

[25] The only architectural plan that exists for the interior of the museum that has labels associated with rooms is one from 1941 by architect Roderich Fick. Two labels indicate the nature of the works of art within: the “Saal der Gotik” (10) and the “Saal der Renaissance” (11); there is no hall of ancient art labeled105. Moreover, in Hermann Voss’s signed statement as part of his interrogation report in 1945, he says the main emphasis of the Linz museum was on German 19th-century painting (and that of the Netherlands, Italy, and France), and he confirms that there was no intention of trying to rival the first-class galleries of Vienna and Dresden; he makes no reference to ancient art106.

[26] Yet, as early as 1939 Hans Posse took a close interest in the major collection in Vienna of Count Karol Lanckoroński (1848–1933), an aristocrat of Polish descent who sponsored major archaeological expeditions in Asia Minor (in Pamphylia and Pisidia) in the mid-1880s107. After the annexation of Austria in March 1938, the Lanckoroński palace at Jacquingasse 18 was subject to expropriation because Karol’s heir, his son Antoni, was a Polish citizen; the palace and its collection were confiscated in 1939 as enemy “Polish property”. Posse oversaw an inventory of some 3,500 works of art and objects in Lanckoroński’s palace in November 1942108. The collection was diverse and impressive, including more than 350 ancient objects (Greek and Roman marble sculpture, Greek vases, bronzes, terracotta figurines, glass, mosaic and fresco fragments, some Etruscan objects, and a few Egyptian antiquities)109, many of which were displayed in the Freskensaal in the palace110. Despite the limited interest in ancient collections for the “Führermuseum”, it seems Hans Posse had his eye on this collection to see what might be useful among the marble sculptures (e.g., the third-century AD Roman sarcophagus with Erotes from Cilicia)111 for display in parts of the extensive Linz complex (e.g., a planned Theatermuseum). Other museums in the Ostmark (Austria) or in the greater German Reich may have been the intended recipients of confiscated or purchased works of art, including probably some of the antiquities, acquired by the “Sonderauftrag Linz”112.

The plunder of antiquities from the National Archaeological Museum, Naples

[27] In addition to many random cases of plunder in Italy during the Fascist and Nazi periods113, there were also illegal exports of antiquities, facilitated by permits awarded by the Fascist government, such as the purchase of the Lancellotti Discobolus, discussed above. A major case of deliberate looting involved objects from the National Archaeological Museum of Naples. In September 1943, one hundred eighty-seven crates of works of art, including antiquities and archaeological objects from the Museo Archeologico Nazionale, had been moved from museums in Naples to the abbey at Montecassino for safekeeping. There, the 1st Paratroop Panzer Division “Hermann Göring” seized the crates and moved the cultural artifacts first to a “Göring” division’s base at the villa of Colle Ferretto near Spoleto. Following intense negotiations between Italian, Vatican and German authorities in the fall of 1943, the works of art were moved to the Vatican property of Castel Sant’Angelo and to the Palazzo Venezia in Rome, where their “return” to Italy was effectively visually orchestrated by German propaganda officials. While the collections were en route in October 1943, the “independently minded” “Göring” division absconded with 15 crates of paintings and antiquities and took them to their headquarters in Berlin, arriving in December 1943, according to the testimony of Göring’s main art adviser/dealer, Walter Andreas Hofer114. Among the Naples collections were five ancient bronze sculptures—the Apollo from the House of the Citharist in Pompeii115, the Resting Hermes116 (Fig. 12), two deer117, and one of the peplophoroi from the Villa dei Papiri at Herculaneum118—as well as six bronze vessels119, gold jewelry from Pompeii and Herculaneum120, and ancient coins121. The “Göring” division intended to present the works of art to Göring for his birthday on 12 January 1944, but Göring supposedly refused to accept them, keeping up the appearance of correctness by not wanting to include overtly confiscated works of art in his collection, a fiction since Göring’s plundering activities are well-documented. According to Allied reports, the crates had already been moved to Carinhall, and, thus, Göring ordered a temporary exhibition to be set up there; we have no details, however, about what was included in this display122. In February 1945, Göring ordered Hofer to have all of the “Montecassino collections” moved to the Chancellery of the Reich in Berlin; Martin Bormann was instructed to send them to Munich, but the next we hear of the collection is that it had arrived on 28 March 1945 in the Steinberg mine at Altaussee, where the works of art were eventually discovered by the Allies, transported to CCP Munich, cataloged by the MFAA, and returned to Italy123.

Fig. 12. Resting Hermes from the Villa dei Papiri, Herculaneum (Naples, Museo Archeologico Nazionale 5625), without its head, which was damaged in the course of its plunder. Photograph by Herbert List in the Munich CCP [Mü no. 2448], March 1946 (reprod. from print in Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles, Johannes Felbermeyer Collection, box 79, folder 8)


[28] Let us return to the question of the discrepancy between National Socialist rhetoric and its supposed preference for classicism versus the relatively small number of antiquities that were collected by Hitler and Göring, as compared to the large numbers of other categories of works of art, especially paintings, that were plundered, purchased, or transferred during this period. If classical antiquity was so key to Hitler and the National Socialists’ worldview, one would expect his collection, the Linz collection, and Göring’s collection to have contained many notable ancient objects, including portraits of the great figures in Greek and Roman history124, but this does not seem to be the case. Why?

[29] First, as indicated above, National Socialism was filled with inconsistencies and contradictions, with competing ideological views regarding the origins of the Aryans within prehistoric Europe versus the ancient Greek world. Hitler’s interest in the classical world arose from a schoolboy’s romantic vision of ancient Greece and Rome, influenced by Houston Stewart Chamberlain’s racist views and Wagnerian-type mythical operatic heroes, not from any intellectual basis or direct engagement with ancient texts or art history knowledge125. Other than the major diplomatic gifts of sculpture and Greek vases, the ancient objects gifted to Hitler were small items of jewelry or coins suitable for a Kunst- und Wunderkammer. The acquisition of the Discobolus is unusual—it was a kind of obsession with Hitler, possibly because the statue was once coveted by the philhellene Ludwig I for the Munich Glyptothek126; Hitler could boast of an accomplishment that the ambitious Bavarian king was unable to achieve.

[30] Classicism played only a modest role in Hitler’s daily life—he had a cutlery set designed for the Berghof on the Obersalzberg with a meander pattern around the perimeter, for example127. His carefully crafted persona as a cultured and morally upright man of the people called for a cultured and elegant, yet spare (Spartan) style in the décor of his private spaces. This style was curated by architect Gerdy Troost and disseminated by Heinrich Hoffmann’s photographs128. Nude females in paintings and neoclassical sculpture (e.g., Girl Tying a Headscarf by Eugen Henke129) appear in the Great Hall of the Berghof residence as signals of Hitler’s strong masculinity and rejection of his rumored homosexuality. Neoclassical statues by Munich sculptor Josef Wackerle are displayed in niches in the dining room of the Old Chancellery in Berlin130 (Fig. 13).

Fig. 13. Neoclassical statues by Munich sculptor Josef Wackerle displayed in niches in the dining room of the Old Chancellery in Berlin, 1935–1945. Photograph by Atelier Troost (reprod. from print in Library of Congress, Washington, DC, Prints and Photographs Division, lot 3940, no. 23)

There is, however, very little evidence of genuine classical antiquities on display in Hitler’s photographically well-documented residences or offices; there are only two visible in a curio cabinet in the main administrative offices of the Chancellery (Fig. 14)131 and a bronze nude male (Hermes?) statuette on a pedestal in the sitting room near the door to the ladies salon132. None are on tables or on Hitler’s desk. European and Chinese porcelains are much more prominent in the décor. Neoclassical works of art seem almost to have been preferred over genuinely ancient objects, as the former could be manipulated and appropriated with greater ease than flawed or partial ancient artifacts or ancient sculptures, which are not always pure white.