War Losses at the Stiftung Preußische Schlösser und Gärten Berlin-Brandenburg
Even today tens of thousands of objects are still missing!
Among European art collections, the Prussian palaces have suffered some of the worst war losses.
Most of the losses occurred through air raids or battles during World War II, or through the evacuation of art treasures following the end of the war. Works of art that were purposely taken out of the country are colloquially referred to as “war loot.”
The most prevalent victims to bombs and hostilities were stationary or immobile works of art, including the palaces themselves, their interior decorations and the large sculptures that they housed. Works by Schlüter, Eosander, Knobelsdorff, Nahl, the Hoppenhaupt Brothers, Gontard, Erdmannsdorff, Langhans and Schinkel, as well as the Berlin, Monbijou, Potsdam, and Schwedt palaces and large sections of Charlottenburg Palace were primarily affected. Later, the heavily damaged, but reconstructed palaces in Berlin and Potsdam were demolished under the government of the German Democratic Republic.
Most of the mobile cultural assets were able to be evacuated into safety ahead of time, although even here there were unforeseeable losses caused by devastation. Among others, these include the collection of Brandenburg glass at the Hohenzollern Museum, the Arp-Schnitger organ from the Palace Chapel at Charlottenburg (through the air raid on the palace on February 3, 1945), as well as the art historical library and the photo collection of the palace administration (through the air raid on the Potsdam City Palace on April 14, 1945).
On the whole however, the extensive art collections, which were part of the interior décor of the palaces, remained essentially intact until the end of the war due to repeated evacuations that were carried out. A selection of particularly valuable art objects, for example, were transported to the Bernterode salt mine near Leinefelde (Thuringia) in March 1945. The works of art were rescued there a short time later by soldiers of the American army, who subsequently brought them to the “Central Art Collecting Point” of the US Armed Forces in Wiesbaden.
However, under the Soviet military administration tens of thousands of works of art from the Prussian palaces were taken to the Soviet Union. During the second large act of restitution from the USSR in 1957–58, which affected many museums in the GDR (in 1955 restitution was made solely to the Gemäldegalerie in Dresden), several hundred paintings, and similar numbers of furnishings, porcelain and other objects of decorative art, as well as some sculptures and graphics were returned.
Even today tens of thousands of objects are still missing from the Stiftung Preußische Schlösser und Gärten Berlin-Brandenburg (SPSG):
- more than 3000 oil paintings, including masterworks by Rubens, van Dyck, Italian and French Baroque painting, as well as 18th and 19th century German painting
- approximately 1100 sculptures, including works by Schlüter, Houdon, Schadow and Rauch
- thousands of pieces of porcelain, including around 3000 objects from the Porcelain Chamber and the Porcelain Kitchen at Charlottenburg Palace
- furniture, predominantly from the following palaces: Sanssouci, New Palace, Babelsberg and Charlottenburg, as well as from the Potsdam City Palace and Monbijou Palace (both demolished)
- 80,000 volumes from the former Königliche Hausbibliothek (royal private library, aka Palace Library), including the libraries of the Prussian kings and Queen Luise
- several thousand prints and drawings
Many of these works of art were especially made for specific palaces or are so integral to their surroundings that they form an “organic entity” that evolved over centuries. Consequently, they are essential components of interiors that were mostly conceived as parts of a Gesamtkunstwerk – a synthesis of the arts – and in fact lose their authenticity and historical significance when isolated from this context.
The loss of important 17th, 18th and 19th century historical inventories is also particularly problematic for in-house research, and disheartening, since these miscellaneous collections of files on the building history of the palaces could not be of much relevant use to anyone besides the SPSG.
SPSG Catalogues of Losses
A catalogue of missing paintings compiled by Gerd Bartoschek and Christoph Martin Vogtherr was published in 2004. The thorough research was based on inventory lists, which have been in place since the 18th century, as well as on late 19th and early 20th century scholarly catalogues.
Intended for museums, art and antiquities collectors, law enforcement authorities, criminal justice, the media and other interested parties, the catalogue contains detailed information about the painting collection of the Prussian palaces, and is meant to hinder covert trade with the sought objects.
Building on the first volume on war losses, a catalogue prepared by Gerd Bartoschek on missing pastels, miniatures, as well as mosaic and porcelain images, was published and presented in 2011.
A volume on selected losses from all the other SPSG collections is currently in preparation.
The objects published in the SPSG’s lost art catalogues can also be researched using the Lost Art Internet Database, where relevant information is continually updated.
The Lost Art Internet Database is a joint project of the German federal and state governments used for the documentation of cultural assets, which, as a consequence of World War II and the National Socialist dictatorship, were displaced, relocated or – particularly in the case of Jewish citizens – seized as a result of persecution.
This database makes it possible to document and research cultural assets worldwide, which have been displaced as a result of the war or confiscated as a result of persecution, as well as cultural assets with dubious or incomplete provenances, where an illegal transfer or an unlawful dispossession cannot be ruled out.
The realization of the Lost Art Internet Database is a cooperation between the Koordinierungsstelle für Kulturgutverluste (Coordination Center for Lost Cultural Assets) and the Institut für Technische und Betriebliche Informationssysteme (Department for Technical & Operational Information Systems (ITI)) at the Otto von Guericke University in Magdeburg.