DEEP in an old silver mine in Germany lies a chamber hewn into the rock and within it, believe treasure hunters, are artworks once destined for the world’s biggest museum devoted to the ego of Adolf Hitler.
If the paintings, tapestries, statues, oriental carpets, sketches and drawings from a fabled collection looted on the orders of Hitler’s chief hangman are found when tunnelling begins next month they will be worth well over half a billion pounds. Paintings by Monet, Manet, Ce?zanne and Renoir, and master- pieces by other artists are believed to reside in the Fortuna Mine near the Czech-German border, 90 minutes drive from Dresden. They formed the bulk of the Hatvany collection, the property of Baron Ferenc Hatvany who was a leading Hungarian-Jewish industrialist and art patron. Some of his pictures are hanging on museum walls to this day, their ownership disputed by his heirs. They were carted off from Budapest bank vaults by Red Army soldiers when the city fell to the Soviets in 1945.
Some have been given back to the family in recent years, including Jean De?sire? Gustave Courbet’s Femme Nue Couche?e which is valued at about £10million. Manet’s The Suicide, which is in a Swiss gallery, was sold back to the baron by a Soviet officer. It is worth more than £40million. Tintoretto’s Portrait Of A Venetian Nobleman was also taken by the Soviets as was Manet’s Me?ry Laurent With A Pug Dog. They are worth more than £40million each.
But most of the Hatvany collection, between 250 and 500 pieces, was looted on the orders of Holocaust organiser Adolf Eichmann, who was in Hungary in 1944 and instituted a policy of arresting Jews then releasing them in exchange for property. He also shipped 400,000 of the less prosperous ones to Auschwitz where many were gassed on arrival. The full details were lost in the turmoil of war but the collection does hold at least one rare Persian carpet worth more than £1million and several Ce?zanne and Renoir pastels worth more than £3million each.
Viennese historian Burkhart List, 62, has acquired documents from Wehrmacht archives that report a mass shipment of Hatvany items to two subterranean galleries measuring 6,000 by 4,500ft square in the Erzge- birge Mountains. With the permission of the mayor of nearby Deutschkatherinenberg Hans- Peter Haustein, List probed for secret chambers with a neutron generator, a hand-held device used in gas and oil exploration that gives instant data on struc- tural faults and deposits. In the case of the Fortuna Mine it beamed back data suggesting a space exists 180ft down that is exactly 6,000 by 4,500ft square.
LIST says: “In the winter of 1944-1945 the records indicate that a mysterious transport arrived here from Budapest that was coded top secret. One of the photos yielded by the archives was of the Sonnenhaus, a large building directly in front of the Fortuna Mine where I believe the art is stored. It shows a large contingent of SS. There was no military or logical state purpose for them to be here on a secret mission unless it was to deliver the artwork into chambers which, climactically, are ideal for the storage of art.”
The artwork was to be hidden before one day being displayed in what was to be the world’s finest museum of art in the Austrian town of Linz. The Fu?hrer went to school in this backwater before setting out to try to become an artist in Vienna. Having failed to get into the city’s art academy he nurtured a lifelong obsession that he would one day show everyone who was the real artistic genius with his scheme for an art museum that would stun mankind. Like most things in the small mind of Hitler, it had to be the biggest, the best, the most lavish, the most pomp- ous. And to fill its galleries he staged the largest art robbery in history.
“I will make Linz the art capital of the world,” Hitler told expert Dr Karl Kerschner. “I will have the finest art treasures of all of Europe. I will make those ungrateful peasants of Vienna feel like they are living in a slum.”
The National Socialist Museum of Art was never realised but the thefts were on a spectacular scale. Hitler even created a special unit for his licensed robbers, the Sonderauftrag Linz (Special Assignment Linz), to get the art for the museum. It was plundered from all occupied lands or, in the early days of Nazism, bought from Jews at absurd knock-down prices in exchange for an exit visa out of Germany.
Dr Hans Posse of the Dresden Museum of Art became Hitler’s travelling consultant and advised him on all aspects of the intended collection, from books to tapestries to sculptures to paintings.
Even after the battle of Stalingrad in 1943, when the German Sixth Army had been smashed and the Reich could no longer win the war, at least 60 special trains a month rolled out from the conquered lands with loot for the Linz project.
NOT all of it reached the Special Assignment team. Luftwaffe chief Hermann Goering was a magpie of a man whose Carinhall mansion outside Berlin groaned under the weight of treasure he looted. Other members of the regime pilfered rare and valuable objects if they had the chance.
The largest object stolen by the Nazis was the Amber Room of Tsar Peter The Great that weighed six tons when dismantled and was stored in the castle of Koenigsberg in East Prussia. It has never been found. Most of the treasure was kept in salt mines outside Linz but many other items, including those from the Hatvany collection, were dispersed around the Fatherland. Some were placed in Alpine Lakes such as Toplitz in Austria whose depths are said to hide gold worth £400million at today’s prices. In June 1983 Special Assignment Linz’s haul of gold from the Rome Central Bank was found in a well in northern Italy; it was then worth £550million and had been earmarked to be used for the construction of Hitler’s museum.
In all the Nazis looted 20 per cent of the art treasures of Europe and more than 100,000 items have still not been found. Many families, particularly Jewish ones, were wiped out in the Holocaust, leaving no one to claim
their property. So far the explorations at the Fortuna Mine have only yielded up a Schmeisser machine gun, a Nazi gas mask, plastic explosive detonators and a safe deposit key.
Mayor Haustein, who is also an MP for the FDP liberal party in Berlin, says: “The question is not what we find here but when we find it. I have seen the evidence and I have heard the testimony of eyewitnesses over the years about the presence of the SS in the village. This stuff is here.”
If the Hatvany collection resides in his village, the art world will rejoice that a small portion of the cultural heritage of Europe could be returned to its rightful heirs.