ST. LOUIS (AP) — In a first-floor gallery at the St. Louis Art Museum hangs a life-size portrait of three bathing women and a small red turtle. The painting, by Henri Matisse, changed the course of art, and is considered one of the most influential 20th-century paintings in the United States.
But it should not be here. It should be in a museum deep in German coal country, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported (http://bit.ly/NoIrHv ).
And it might be, were it not for World War II, the Nazi theft of millions of the most important artworks in Europe, and a St. Louis newspaper tycoon.
In the summer of 1939, Joseph Pulitzer Jr. traveled to Switzerland for a spectacular auction assembled by the Third Reich to raise money for the war.
Pulitzer flew home owning a Matisse.
With Hollywood's help, moviegoers now know the harrowing tales of the Monuments Men, the group of roughly 350 men and women from 13 countries who recovered nearly 5 million pieces of art and artifacts stolen by the Nazis during World War II — including work by Claude Monet, Edgar Degas and Pablo Picasso.
But the story isn't one that ends in Europe. Museums across the United States own a small piece of that history even now, more than 70 years later. After the war, artwork ejected from Germany made its way to heirs, galleries and private collectors across the ocean.
The St. Louis Art Museum has at least nine such works.
"There was a whole system, a whole set of measures, (the Nazis) put in place to turn art into either art they liked, or into cash," said James van Dyke, an art history professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia, who specializes in German work. "And many American museums and private collectors benefited from this move."
The Nazis stole millions of paintings and artifacts. They seized private collections from Jewish families before sending the paintings to secret mines for safekeeping, and the Jews to concentration camps.
They pulled iconic works — Jan van Eyck's Ghent Altarpiece and Michelangelo's Madonna of Bruges, for example — from churches, castles and museums across France, Belgium, Italy and Austria.
And they removed millions of pieces from their own museums.
Their goal was twofold. Adolf Hitler, a failed art student himself, envisioned a gigantic museum devoted to Nazi ideals, full of famous Renaissance, Romantic and realist pieces plucked from his spoils.
The modern art he confiscated would be sold or destroyed.
The pieces recovered by the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives section of the Western Allied military effort — the Monuments Men — were the lucky ones. The soldiers returned many to their home countries, if not their actual homes.
Two on display in St. Louis for example, Hans Mielich's 500-year-old "Portrait of a Gentleman" and "Portrait of a Lady," were confiscated from a Jewish couple in Vienna, Austria, recovered from the Altaussee salt mines, and returned to the family, according to museum files. Years later, an heir gave the paintings to the St. Louis Art Museum.