It was the biggest art heist in history: during World War II, representatives of Germany's Third Reich extorted, plundered and stole thousands of works worth millions of dollars from collectors in occupied territories. Works by Monet, van Gogh, Chagall and Picasso were spirited out of Nazi-occupied France and Belgium, ostensibly for display in an institution devoted to anti-Jewish studies in Frankfurt. By the end of the war, much of the artwork was lost some of it hidden or destroyed and some taken as trophies by the Soviet army. Thousands of pieces, valued in the hundreds of millions of dollars, dropped off the cultural map until now.
A new online database created by the Conference of Jewish Material Claims Against Germany and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum seeks to reunite lost artworks with the families of their owners. "This is the first database to digitize German records so as to make searchable who the original owners were and whether or not the objects in question have been restituted," says Wesley Fisher, the claims conference director.
Ironically, the database relies on the meticulous records the Nazis themselves kept of their spoils. At the Galerie Nationale du Jeu de Paume in occupied Paris, the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg a special group headed by Alfred Rosenberg, Hitler's chief ideologue cataloged more than 20,000 artworks, books and other "degenerate art" objects acquired between 1940 and 1944. These items, like many thousands more artifacts collected elsewhere, were documented by the Nazis with photographs and neatly typed index cards.
According to the database, at least 50% of these works have not been repatriated. "Many families know or believe that relatives killed in the Holocaust owned artworks but may not know the pieces' names or artists. This list can help them search family holdings," says Greg Schneider, claims conference executive vice president.
Because the database lists only what the Nazis had collected by 1944, it's impossible to tell how much of it survived: many works were destroyed in the later years of the war. But in the cases in which an artwork identified in the database matches a piece in a current collection, things start to get interesting. Take, for example, an 1889 Monet oil whose photograph bears an extraordinary resemblance to Rapids on the Petite Creuse at Fresselines a Monet hanging in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. "We are aware that Monet did various works that were of the same subject, so it's possible that there is more than one," says Fisher. He notes, however, that the similarity, along with the provenance of the Met's Monet it was reportedly in the collection of a Parisian art dealer known to have traded with the Nazis "certainly raises questions within the art world." Harold Holzer, a spokesman for the museum, tells TIME in a statement that the Metropolitan's Rapids on the Petite Creuse at Fresselines is "a completely different painting with a completely different provenance."
There's similar uncertainty surrounding Young Girl and a Parrot, a work by 17th century Dutch painter Caspar Netscher, which appears to match a work titled Dame am Fester (Woman at the Window), currently on display in the Von der Heydt Museum in the town of Wuppertal, Germany. According to the database, the Nazis seized Netscher's Young Girl and a Parrot from the family of Belgian collector Hugo Daniel Andriesse in Brussels in 1942. The Nazis then brought the painting to the Jeu de Paume for processing before shipping it to Germany. "Our painting seems identical to the photograph in the database. However, several replicas of the painting by Netscher exist: a copy in the [Old Masters Picture] Gallery in Dresden, Germany, and a copy in Bremen, Germany," says Antje Birthälmer, a spokeswoman for the Von der Heydt Museum. "Also, two copies are on display in private collections in Europe."
Proving an artwork's provenance the chain of possession from its original creator all the way down to its current owner is a murky science at best. And until a family member comes forward to make a claim on the artwork, the museum or gallery is considered the lawful owner and is under no obligation to do anything. "The most important lesson a museum is taught is to protect their collection above all else," says Fisher. He hopes the database will help highlight the inconsistencies in provenance that he claims institutions have long preferred not to address. That's not to say there's any wrongdoing afoot: as the Met's Holzer notes, it's not unlikely that museums could have acquired looted or stolen artworks without being aware of their past. "Things can be bought in good faith but still have bad title," he says. Both museums declined to speculate on their artworks' possible Nazi connections, saying much more research would be needed.
Even if the project doesn't result in the recovery or restitution of any lost works, the database means a great deal to the descendants of the Nazis' victims. "Several people have contacted us to say how grateful they are simply to see photographs of what was taken from their families," says Schneider. Seventy years after the Holocaust, most survivors have passed away; for their families, these artworks might be the last personal link they have to those who have perished. The database has already prompted a surprising personal revelation for at least one person: Wesley Fisher. "The day after we made the database public," he says, "relatives of mine informed me that it included their grandparents' art collection."