Aside from their huge historical significance, the documents published in this Catalogue Goering have the power to deeply move any reader. The original photographs, the handwritten comments on the quality of the artwork and the annotations from various Nazi leaders on the origin of the paintings together give an unprecedented and stirring account of a huge and despicable looting operation.
Much has already been written about the Goering collection, mainly in English and German, but aside from the fact that this is the first French book on the subject, this publication stands out for two reasons.
On the one hand, it identically reproduces all the data and photographs contained in the catalogue - original photographs taken in the years in which the collection was assembled. On the other, many detailed references provide a clear insight into the circulation of the works - whether they had been stolen, exchanged or seized. By providing access to a wealth of new information, this book is of huge documentary value and will no doubt open up new perspectives on the period and the topic. In its archives, the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs holds a huge amount of information on the plundering which took place during World War II from documents seized in Germany by the French authorities at the end of the War. Among them were the documents on the Goering collection. From 2012, I wanted to speed up the work to restore and translate this catalogue so that it could be published and made available to as many people as possible. The manuscript, which has been translated and reproduced in its entirety in this book, was written between 1933 and 1944. It lists a total of 1,376 paintings acquired by Goering, either "legally" or through plundering. For each work of art, this inventory provides the artist’s name, the title and description (often in minute detail) of the piece, its origin, how it was acquired, any valuations carried out, where it was stored and its classification numbers. Period photographs of the paintings are also included.
Goering is well known to historians as an obsessive collector. This obsession, which was already strong before 1939, was fuelled by pillaging raids which he organized during the War in occupied Europe, mainly France and the Netherlands. The inventory shows that managing his collection of paintings was one of his top priorities until the final months of 1944.
The first two works of art listed in the catalogue in 1933 are Italian paintings done by artists with careers at the courts of German princes: Venus by Jacopo de’ Barbari, born in Venice around 1445, the official artist of Maximilian I, and Diana and Callisto by Johann Rottenhammer, who worked for Emperor Rudolph II. We learn from the inventory that the collection was gradually built up over six years, both through purchases and through gifts for Goering’s birthdays.
Then came new additions to the collection, mainly from the Northern Schools: mythological and religious subjects, landscapes, still lifes, but also some portraits of major German historical figures, from Frederick the Wise, Duke of Saxony, to Frederick the Great, King of Prussia, to Bismarck, including a portrait of Hitler - a birthday present from the Führer to Goering on 12 January 1937. This first series, which already contains 12 paintings by Cranach (Cranach the Elder, Cranach the Younger and the Cranach school; the full collection has 57 Cranachs) reflects Goering’s desire to create an emblematic set of works representing what he believed to be the German identity.
But 1939 was a turning point. Once war was declared, the Nazi ideologists began executing their plan to repatriate all of the artwork which was "stolen" from Germany since the 16th century and sent around the world. The looting took place based on detailed lists drawn up by the Director of the Berlin State Museums, Otto Kümmel. The occupation of the Netherlands enabled Goering to take possession of several hundred paintings, including those belonging to Jewish Dutch art dealer, Jacques Goudstikker. As well as works by 17th- and 18th-century Flemish and Dutch masters, there were paintings by 18th-century French masters, which were the first French pieces in the Goering collection.
Following the Armistice of 22 June 1940, looting in the occupation zone was organized by the ERR (Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg für die Besetzten Gebiete - special military personnel for the occupied territories) formed by the Third Reich to organize the systematic looting of cultural goods in the occupied countries. Paris, as a global art-market hub, was a prime target for the ERR. Works from private collections owned by Jewish families, Freemasons or political opponents were looted or purchased under duress to add to the personal collections of Hitler and Goering, to museums and other Reich institutions, and to be sold and used as currency in order to make further purchases. Goering, who became Reichsmarschall (Marshal of the Reich) in July 1940, made multiple trips to Paris to hand-pick works of art on display at exhibitions organized especially for him by his accomplices, in particular art dealer Bruno Lohse; almost 600 paintings were pillaged in this way. With these additions, the collection lost its strictly "Germanic" tone, becoming quite diverse and comprising many paintings by French 18th-, 19th- and 20th-century artists.
Developed in a spirit of nationalism, the Goering collection sought to increase the purity and grandeur of German art, which was supposedly impervious to outside influences. It ended up as an odious hunting trophy, the fruit of the villainous plundering of jewels of European art. Works of art must never be viewed as prey to be hunted down; they are the common heritage of mankind. This book’s publication reminds us of that timeless truth.
Laurent Fabius, French Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Development