Dear Friends of Art,
received a letter from a veteran of the Second World War, William G. O'Brien,
Major, US Army Reserve Ret., in which he told us the story how he participated
in recovering of three pictures by Lucas Cranach the Elder. It is such
an interesting story, that we asked Mr. O'Brien's permission to publish
it. The reason why Mr. O'Brien wrote to us was to help him to find out
where the rescued pictures are now. For us it seemed the easiest
way to start is to ask for the help of the U.S. National Archives, which
retain original textual records, including the inventory card file of all
works of art processed through the Munich Central Collecting Point, and
photographs of restitution activities at the Collecting Point (Record Group
260). Unfortunately, we had no opportunity for a visit and received no
answer to our letter. Thus we decided to ask you for a assistance, especially
the art lovers from Europe, maybe the pictures are now in a museum next
to you. Enjoy the story, and if possible, help us.
However, Schweinfurt was a principal target for Allied bombers, since it was the site of Sachs’ ball bearing plant, an essential item for the production of military hardware of all types. (One of the most disastrous American raids was aimed at Schweinfurt, in which dozens of planes and hundreds of aircrewmen were lost). In 1944 Sachs evidently moved the art collection to a safer location, and sent it to his estate at Rechenau n. Oberaudorf, Bavaria. His wife, Frau Sachs, and step-daughter, Jolanda, lived there in the Jagdhaus, the Hunting Lodge, while the paintings, in crates, were stored in the main mansion on the estate.
On May 5, 1945, an American, Lt. Donald Strauss, (not his real name), the C.O. of a CIC Detachment, came to the estate to arrest Willy Sachs as a potential war criminal. Lt. Strauss was favorably impressed by the estate and so impressed by Jolanda, who, according to his words, was a strikingly beautiful young girl that he temporarily set up his headquarters at the estate. Lt. Strauss fell in love with Jolanda, and this, I believe, was the motivation for his involvement in the drama, which followed. Shortly, his detachment was assigned as an IPW Detachment, the mission of which was to interrogate prisoners of war, which necessitated his moving from place to place. However, he continued to visit the estate, and it was reported that he had spent a total of 56 days at the estate between May 5 and September 1, 1945.
Lt. Strauss developed a friendly relationship with both Jolanda and her mother. At some point in June, 1945, Frau Sachs showed him the crated paintings. Later three of these paintings, Segnender Christus (The Blessing Christ), Johanns der Bestandigen (John the Constant), and Johann Friedrich der Grossmütige (John the Courageous) by Lucas Cranach the Elder, with the help of Lt. Strauss, found their way into the black market. The rest of the Willy Sachs collection was removed to the Art Collecting Point in Munich in September 1945.
During the investigation, Frau Sachs disclosed that she had “given” two paintings to Strauss as “souvenirs of Germany”. Immediately, attempts were made to locate Strauss. He was located at Jolanda's apartment in Munich on October 1, 1945. There, both he and Jolanda denied everything. Lt. Strauss was reassigned from the Reinforcement Depot to the 132nd Evacuation Hospital in Munich and Jolanda was arrested.
On or about November 2, 1945, Lt. Walter W. Horn, then an Intelligence
Officer assigned to SHAEF (Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force)
Fine Arts and Monuments, came to Munich and interviewed Jolanda at the
jail. (Walter Horn, 1908-1995, professor and art historian at the University
of California, http://www.berkeley.edu/news/berkeleyan/1996/0124/gazette.html,
his contribution in recovering stolen art treasures after the WWII is enormous).
During that interview, Jolanda signed a statement admitting that she had
heard her mother and Lt. Strauss discuss their intent to sell the paintings
and that Lt. Strauss was going to assist her in arranging for their sale,
and take them to Augsburg, presumably for this purpose. Armed with this
statement, Lt. Horn and Capt. Rae, the Regional Monuments, Fine Art and
Archives officer of the Military Government Detachment questioned Lt. Strauss
again. Obviously stunned by Jolanda's confession, Lt. Strauss refused to
give any details or even admit that Jolanda's statement was true. He said
he did not want to involve anyone else, and would take his punishment but
would not involve others. However, he offered to assist in recovering the
paintings, and on November 6, 1945, inadvertently stated that the paintings
had been subject to sale and money received for them. He told Lt. Horn
that the search to recover them might involve Germany, Alsace, Lorraine,
and possibly France and Belgium. I believe that it was on this day, or
shortly thereafter, that Lt. Horn came to my office and enlisted me for
the task of recovering the stolen paintings. About a week or two later
I received an order from SHAEF, ordering me to seek the recovery of three
paintings by Lucas Cranach the Elder. The order authorized me to travel
to any country in Europe for that purpose, and I was assigned a driver
and a command car for the trip. I had been given a copy of the investigative
reports on the matter, and a photocopy of the painting, shown below, of
“John the Constant” for identification purposes.
||Johannes des Beständigen von Sachsen.
1520. 65 x 48 cm.
Johann's right hand is not even visible. When we located it in Brussels, the restorer had removed layers of paint and revealed the hand, with a large ring on one of the fingers.
I learned that Lt. Strauss was temporarily assigned as Mess Officer
at the medical detachment of the local evacuation hospital in Munich. He
had agreed to accompany someone and attempt to recover these three paintings.
I was uneasy about this from the start, since Lt. Strauss was facing a
general court-martial, and might well be looking for a means of escape.
I went to the hospital that morning to meet him and make arrangements for our trip. I found a young man about my age, mid-thirties, who was pleasant and cooperative and offered me breakfast at his mess. He was quite relaxed, and I remember that he spent some time asking medical officers in the mess how they liked the Eggs Benedict, which he had had prepared that morning.
He was an enigmatic person, good-looking, affable and personable to meet, but there was a dark side, a depression, a self-denigrating personality. He spoke often of “Schicksal”, Fate, as determining his failures. He was from Taos, New Mexico. He was well-educated, with at least a Master's degree, as he had written a thesis on primitive German painting on wood, a class of work done by Cranach. He spoke fluent German. Whether it was due to the circumstances of our meeting or not, I also had the feeling of being in the presence of an intelligent con man, who with verbal sleight of hand could make black look like white.
On November 24th, we started off on the search. I did not trust Strauss, and I did not know what criminal elements we would meet on the trip. For these reasons, I wore my .45 automatic in a holster, loaded, with a round in the chamber the entire time. This was not that unusual, most officers wore a weapon frequently, for Europe was in a chaotic state and there were many individuals and small groups roaming around, living off the land, so to speak.
We started our search in Bavaria, Lt. Strauss proposing that we visit different addresses and people, possibly involved in the art black market. Our covering legend was that we were both American officers on leave looking for primitive art to take home. The morning of the 25th, we drove to Mannheim, crossed the Rhine on a pontoon bridge the Engineers had built, and drove towards Metz. We came to a small village, a few buildings and houses on each side of the road, named St. Avold. Lt. Strauss suddenly exclaimed that he had been stationed there and had some friends there who would put us up for the night. We came to a small white frame house set back a little on the south side of the road, and were invited into the Mengers residence.
I never learned what M. Menger did for a living, but the interior of
the house had several oil paintings and a small grand piano. I noted in
my report later that the quality of the paintings seemed out of proportion
to the rest of the furnishings. Both the Mengers were about 40-45 years
old, and seemed like working class people, not university-educated. Again,
with them, we went into our “officers on leave looking for primitive art”
routine. M. Menger repeatedly urged that we try Paris, not Brussels, as
we had suggested. Strauss conversed with them in German, much of which
I did not understand, but apparently,
M. Menger indicated he had some other paintings than those on the walls. Lt. Strauss asked that he show one of them to us, and he went to another room and returned with a large framed oil painting on wood, which we recognized as Cranach's “Segnender Christus”, one of the pictures we were seeking!
Both Lt. Strauss and I kept poker faces and did not let on that we had any unusual interest in this particular work of art. We did inspect it, and I was certain that it was one of our targets. Lt. Strauss later confirmed this, and we agreed that we would leave the picture where it was, in order that others down the black market chain might not be alerted by the Mengers that we were looking for the other pictures. It was a calculated risk. If this painting was moved on in our absence, we would have an even more difficult task in locating it, but in the other event, we would lose all chance of finding the other two.
At this point, I became fairly well convinced that Lt. Strauss had a genuine interest in recovering the paintings, in spite of my previous doubts about him. I felt now that he felt it was in his best interest to do so, to alleviate whatever punishment a court-martial might hand out to him. It did not, however, completely remove my feeling that in a fit of depression over what “Fate” had done to him he might attempt to escape or even commit suicide. At least, I felt that he was honestly trying to do the job we had been given, while continuing to conceal the identity of any co-conspirators as much as possible.
The morning of November 26, 1945, we started for Brussels. By the evening we were getting into the Ardennes forest, a mountainous, sparsely inhabited area which had been the scene of murderous fighting during and after the Battle of the Bulge. We paused briefly to see the town of Bastogne, where the 101st Airborne had made such a gallant stand against Hitler's last gasp attempt to win the war. There was still damage to some of the buildings, but that battle had been almost a year earlier and much of it had been repaired or cleaned up. We turned north from there, along a narrow road which wound through the mountains and came to a cleared piece of ground, perhaps 4 or 5 acres, on the east side of the road. To the east of this field was a large valley and beyond that was a mountain ridge parallel to our road. This ridge was several hundred feet higher than the field. In the field were six disabled American Sherman tanks, dug in the field perhaps four feet deep. All of them were facing the ridge on the opposite side of the valley. This was the scene of a tragedy. During the Battle of the Bulge, the Commanding General of an American Armored Division had ordered his division to attack down this narrow road in an attempt to reach and relieve Bastogne. A battery of German artillery, firing 88’s, a larger, more powerful weapon than the Shermans were equipped with, had zeroed in on the column, creeping along this narrow track in the wilderness. In desperation, these two tank platoons had attempted to dig in on this field and provide counter-battery fire to protect the column. Outgunned (I'm not even sure the tanks could have reached the other ridge with their weapons), with the Germans sited on the reverse slope of the ridge, they had no chance, and all six were destroyed. Tanks belonged in open terrain, where they could maneuver. On a narrow track like that road, they were almost helpless.
After stopping for a few minutes to view this terrible scene, we moved on. It was getting dark, and the Ardennes seemed even more dark and foreboding than before. We were not sure of our position, or how far we were from Liege, or even whether this road would take us there. A knocked out bridge, which in this deserted area might not yet have been replaced, would have meant retracing our steps back to Bastogne through the forest in the dark. Also, we were getting hungry. It was 7:00 or 7:30 PM and we hadn't eaten since noon. As we were creeping along the road, we saw a glimmer of light off to our left. We decided to stop and make sure we were still headed in the right direction. We pulled off to the left and got out and walked through the trees fifty yards or so and came to a cabin, which was the source of the light. We knocked, the door opened and a man stood there. In French, I told him we were Americans going to Liege, and were we on the right road. Yes, we were. Then I had an idea, and asked him if we could heat our rations over his fire or stove, since we were hungry. He nodded sort of non-committedly, and the three of us entered the one room cabin. He and his wife and a small boy were there, and it turned out the man was a farmer, although in the dark we hadn't seen anything, which looked like a farm. In any event, we sat dawn with our mess kits at a little wooden table and his wife bustled about heating our food. We brought in enough so that his family could join us, and we sat there and had dinner. There were absolutely no amenities. They had a wood-fired stove which provided warmth as well as place to cook, and some rudimentary bunks where they slept, and that was it. There wasn't much conversation, either, although they were responsive when we said something. During the meal, we suddenly heard something bumping one wall of the cabin. We jumped up, startling the farmer and his family, and started over to a door in the wall where the sound came from. At that, he jumped up and got ahead of us and opened the door. I looked out the door and into the face of a cow standing there! The shed where the few animals he had were housed was part of their house, and when the door was opened, the odors of the barnyard floated into the house. The dinner hour over, we piled back into the command car and continued our trip to Liege, where we were able to find quarters for the night.
Next morning we continued on to Brussels, arriving there about 10:00 AM. The question at this point was, where do we start looking? In this large European city, in the confused aftermath of a 6-year war, how does one locate a pair of stolen paintings? We decided to start with art stores. There was a variety of such stores on one of the boulevards of downtown Brussels. It was a beautiful sunny morning, crisp but not cold, and we found a several block area on a boulevard, which had a park with trees and grass down the middle. It was a lovely street, and the weather was almost spring-like. Having no other choice, we started at one end of the art store area, and went from one shop to the next, entering, sauntering around looking at the various pieces displayed, talking with the proprietor and trying to get a feel for the possibility that this was the destination of the two Cranachs. In none of these establishments did we disclose the real nature of our visit, only that we were window-stopping for a painting. We spent several hours at this, and had had absolutely no results. I was beginning to think that unless we could obtain more definitive information from the Mengers, or some other source, we would never find what we were looking for. The next shop we came to was that of a M. Menteau. My recollection is that it was a little more upscale than most of the others we had seen, but that does not account for what happened as we walked towards its front door. I turned to Lt. Strauss and said, “I don't know why, but I think this is the place. I'm going to try a different approach.” We entered the shop, and were greeted by M. Menteau himself. Without any further ado, I pulled out a copy of my orders to recover the paintings, and said to him in French, “I am Captain O'Brien of the American Army. We are here to recover two Lucas Cranach paintings that have been stolen. This is a copy of my official orders. Are they here in your shop?” M. Menteau just stared at me for about ten seconds, and then he said, “Is this really official?” I said, “It is very official. If you or someone here can read English, this order will prove it.”
I am not certain whether M. Menteau was part of the ring or simply a noted dealer who was being used without his knowledge. I tend to favor the latter interpretation, for without hesitation, he told me that he had one of the paintings there, and that the other was at a restorer's shop, being worked on. He went into the back of his shop and returned carrying the portrait “Johann Freidrich der Grossmutige”, the portrait of an unidentified male which we had been told about. He then proceeded to tell us that he had received the paintings from two men from Luxembourg, a M. Biever and a M. Becker, who told him that these pictures were being used in connection with a financial transaction of M. Biever's firm. They also told him that the third painting was on its way, and would be there in a few weeks. I gave him a receipt for the painting, and he then accompanied us to an old brick building a few blocks away. Up on the third floor we found a loft in which a M. Philippot had a studio. He was an expert retoucher, and he had the portrait of “Johann the Constant” on an easel in his studio.
At this point, we had a problem. Well, two problems. First, our driver
became so ill he told us he couldn't drive any longer. Whether it was due
to his carousing of the previous night in Liege, or whether he had some
kind of bug, I don't know, but he was no longer available for duty. I took
over the wheel, Lt. Strauss sat with me in front and the driver laid down
on the back seat. The only means we had of protecting the paintings was
a couple of old GI blankets, which we wrapped around the pictures and placed
them on the floor of the back seat. Straus and I were hungry, because it
was now about noon. I drove around Brussels until we saw a little restaurant,
which looked like a small diner. Our ex-driver had no interest in food,
so we left him to guard the paintings and took some of our C-rations into
the diner and talked the Belgian cook into heating some for us for lunch.
I gave him a pack of cigarettes, and he was most happy to oblige. That
done, we faced our second problem.
We were in Brussels, it was afternoon, and our third picture was in St. Avold, and if M. Menteau or M Philippot were inclined, they might well be able to inform the Mengers of what had occurred to two of their paintings. We had to get to St. Avold before the Mengers were notified. We did not dare stay overnight in Brussels to give our driver time to recover. He said he'd be all right if we drove on, as long as he could lie down, so off we went for St. Avold. I drove, and made it to St. Avold about 6:30 PM, and I pulled up in front of the Menger's house. By pre-arrangement, I kept the motor running in case we had to make a hurried exit and Lt. Strauss went into the house to recover the painting. He returned with it in less than five minutes. We wrapped it in a blanket and took off. Only Mme. Menger was home, and though I don't know what he told her, apparently she gave Lt. Strauss no argument.
The roads in Europe were in very poor repair. Most were passable, but average speed over a trip would be no more than 35-40 MPH. It was getting colder, and our open command car provided little protection against the wind. We stopped once briefly and tried to heat some of our rations over a can the size of a large grapefruit juice can, in which we put some sand and gravel and gasoline to make a cooking fire. It worked to some extent, but only enough to take the chill off the food. Trying to heat water in a canteen cup to make instant coffee made the cup so hot you couldn't put it to your lips, but the water remained lukewarm.
We reached the Rhine about 2:00 AM and crossed on the pontoon bridge. MPs stopped us on the east bank, at Mannheim, and examined our papers, and then we took off again into the night. The temperature continued to drop and although I had a pair of GI gloves, my hands grew so cold that when I tried to use my Zippo lighter to light a cigarette, my fingers were so stiff I couldn't turn the little wheel to make it spark and ignite. Fatigue began to take its toll, too. We had been on the road for over four days under less than ideal conditions. I had been up since before 6:00 AM the previous morning, and it was now about 2:00 AM. I began to have little hallucinations. I remember at one point I became convinced it was snowing. With the poor road conditions, I didn't want suddenly to strike a slippery spot and slide off into a situation from which we couldn't extricate ourselves. I thought it had begun to snow, and became so convinced that I stopped the car and got out and walked up and down the road to examine it for snow. It was completely clear, and so I got back in the car and we continued. Lt. Strauss couldn't understand what I was doing. At the same time, I still did not trust him enough to let him drive. With the pictures in our possession, there was still the possibility that he might try to take off with them and use them for funds to finance his escape to Italy or Switzerland, and I didn't want to have our thus far successful trip end on that note. Dawn came, and it was a little easier, but we sat and drove with almost no conversation. We were so cold that our minds seemed to have frozen, too. There was nothing to say. About 8:30 AM we entered Munich, and I drove directly to the Art Collecting Point and delivered our three paintings, still wrapped in the GI blankets. I then dropped Lt. Strauss off at the Evacuation Hospital where he was temporarily assigned, and went to my apartment. Our driver had recovered enough by then that he said he was able to return the car to the motor pool and get to his barracks. After a hot bath, I slept until late in the afternoon, and except for writing my report, that was the end of the saga.
I saw Lt. Strauss one more time. Late in January, 1946, I received my orders to join the 287th Engineer Combat Battalion as Adjutant to be returned to the United States. I went to our Headquarters in Munich to sign out and obtain all the necessary clearances before I left the city. I had just finished and was walking down one of the corridors in the building when I ran into Lt. Strauss coming the other way. We said hello, and he told me his court-martial was to start that day. He asked me if I had submitted a report of our trip and I told him that I had. Then he asked if I had included the names of those who had been involved in the affair, and I again replied yes, I had. He sort of shrugged, and said, “Well, OK, that's all right. It doesn't matter”, and we shook hands and parted. From beginning to end, it seems that he was more interested in protecting the others than in protecting himself. At the end, I felt a little sorry for him. It seemed to me that he was motivated only by his infatuation for Jolanda. I do not believe he ever received, or was supposed to receive, a dime for his part in the affair. Learning that Jolanda had confessed and implicated him probably was an overwhelming blow, and in the end he was left bearing the legal responsibility, without Jolanda, his sole reason for being involved. I would like very much to know what became of him, what the result of the court-martial was, what he did with his life afterwards, but it's all lost in time, now. Sad.
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