When the Nazis invaded Greece in 1941, Julius Ringel, a major general in the German army, took an active role in initiating illegal excavations on the island of Crete, where Minoan culture had flourished more than 3,000 years earlier.
The land was rich with artifacts from the island’s cultural heritage and Ringel, often aided by his troops, carted off all sorts of ceramics, vases, parts of statuary, some for his own gain and some to be sent back to German museums as the spoils of war.
Ringel, commander of the Fifth Mountain Division, also looted ancient treasures that had already been discovered. He confiscated antiquities from the Villa Ariadne, the former home of the British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans, which he converted into the division’s headquarters. He stole others from a locked room at the ancient palace of Knossos, a five-acre archaeological site that was the center of Minoan culture, according to experts.
“Army officers such as Ringel were not only excavating and looting antiquities for personal wealth but they were also responsible for the destruction of antiquities, in Crete, Macedonia, Tiryns, Assini and Samos,” said Vassilios Petrakos, a scholar who is curator of antiquities and general secretary of the Archaeological Society of Athens.
Though the cinematic exploits of Indiana Jones in the 1980s provided a popular, fictional view of a Nazi lust for antiquities, the art world has, understandably, focused considerably more attention on the seizure of art from Jews.
But the topic of the Nazi role in antiquities looting is increasingly drawing attention, in part through the work of scholars who are peeling back the mysteries of what happened to the objects that were excavated or seized eight decades ago.
Last fall, for example, “The Past in Shackles,” a five-volume study on the looting of antiquities in Greece during World War II, written by Petrakos, was published.
“Research has intensified greatly in many countries, including the United States, Germany, Italy, France, Poland and Greece,” said Irene Bald Romano, a professor of anthropology at the University of Arizona and curator of Mediterranean Archaeology of the Arizona State Museum.
Symposia and lectures on antiquities looting by the Nazis have been held in several cities in the past few years, including one by the College Art Association, which presented a panel on the topic at its annual conference last February.
“The studies that have been made up to now really sort of scratch the surface of the topic,” Romano said in a telephone interview.
Romano is co-editor of the forthcoming “The Fate of Antiquities in the Nazi Era,” a special online issue of RIHA, the journal of the International Association of Research Institutes in the History of Art, which will be produced in association with the Getty Research Institute and the Central Institute for Art History in Munich. The issue is scheduled to be published later this year.
“Antiquities have not received the kind of in-depth research they deserve on the fate of Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Etruscan, Near Eastern and Egyptian antiquities stolen by the Nazis,” said Claire Lyons, curator of antiquities at the Getty Museum. “We need to be focusing more effort on World War II.”
The passage of time has made it difficult for scholars today to quantify the scope of the looting of antiquities that occurred during World War II, whether it be from Greece, Italy or the Middle East, primarily Egypt.
“A complete account of what was stolen does not exist and is no longer possible,” said Petrakos, referring to the situation in Greece. “The looting was carried out by the Germans and Italian military men who robbed museums and findings from the excavations. We do not even know the quantity of items that were found in those excavations.”
Tracking items is complicated by the fact that the looting took place during a time when the antiquities market was flourishing, especially in Germany, Switzerland and France, particularly occupied Paris.
These days, experts say, Germany has been quite responsive to claims for repatriation of looted antiquities, although it is not clear whether some may still reside in its museums because determining the full history of ancient artifacts can be so difficult.
“The Germans have been very open about their collections, created databases to make their collections’ information and archives accessible, conducted provenance research in public museums, and restituted many works of art,” Romano said. “The situation is not perfect, but Germany has a high standard for museums with respect to provenance issues, especially during the Nazi period.”
While minor excavations took place under German supervision across Greece, there were major digs in the Thessaly region of northern Greece, Petrakos said. The Thessaly excavations, he said, were organized by Alfred Rosenberg, the Nazi theorist, who headed the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg, which plundered art, archives and libraries throughout Europe.
Heinrich Himmler, the head of the Gestapo and the SS, also started excavations in Greece under the auspices of his Ahnenerbe (Ancestral Heritage) organization, with a purpose of proving that Germans were part of an Aryan race and the heirs of ancient Greek culture.
In Italy, some antiquities were exported to Germany under the direct authority of Mussolini. In Greece, in anticipation of the Nazi invasion in April 1941, museums began hiding objects six months before. Some works were placed in caves, crypts or buried in gardens so as to protect them from bombings as well as looting. Some statues were placed horizontally in trenches, which were filled with sand and sealed with cement. Gold pieces and museum catalogs, which were viewed as valuable inventories of what the institutions had held, were sent to the vaults of the Bank of Greece.
“The hiding of antiquities was successful only for the big museums, those in Athens, Olympia, Delphi, Thessaloniki and Chalkis,” Petrakos said. “The smaller museums, except that of Nafplion, were not protected properly and many antiquities were robbed.”
Eleni Pipelia, an archaeologist in the Greek Ministry of Culture, said one sculptor she knew told her that during the war she had created fake antiquities and sold them to the occupying Germans, in an effort to sate their need to bring home antiquities and to raise money for the resistance.
Another hero of Greek antiquities preservation was Nikolaos Platon, the director of the Heraklion Archaeological Museum on Crete, who, at some personal risk, was known to bicker with the Germans to prevent their plundering.
Platon, who died in 1992, kept an inventory of the items Ringel had taken from the Heraklion Museum. Four years ago, based in part on Platon’s research and reporting, the University of Graz in Austria returned 26 antiquities to the museum that had been taken by Ringel, according to Georgia Flouda, the museum’s curator of Prehistoric and Minoan Antiquities.
One institution, the Pfahlbau Museum in Unteruhldingen has returned more than 13,000 artifacts that were taken from Thessaly — pottery fragments, small clay figures, stone tools, animal bones, excavation documents and photos, that are now in the store rooms of the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, according to Kostas Nikolentzos, head of the museum’s department of Prehistoric Egyptian, Cypriot and Near Eastern Antiquities.
“The restitution began in 1951 and was completed in 2014,” he said. The items have not been publicly exhibited, he said, in part because so many were in poor condition at the time of their excavation.
Dr. Maria Lagogianni-Georgakarakos, director emerita of the museum, said the length of the repatriation process had been influenced by the splitting of Germany at the end of the war. “Documents and antiquities were divided at various locations in East and West Germany,” she said. “The director of the Pfahlbau Museum explained that it took two decades for research into the origins of the antiquities to be completed.”
The focus on Nazi antiquity looting comes as museums across the world face increased pressure to review items originally acquired by colonizers and occupying forces in eras that long predate World War II.
“Greece has been robbed since the Persian Wars,” Petrakos said.
Elizabeth Marlowe, an associate professor of ancient and medieval art at Colgate University and an expert on antiquities looting and repatriation, said: “The British Museum, as well as many national European museums, are full of objects that were seized under a variety of circumstances from colonial territories and other European spheres of influence around the globe.”
As antiquities looted by the Nazis have been repatriated or returned to their original owners, many have been sold or donated to major museums around the world.
The Getty has two antiquities — a bronze statuette of a woman and a carnelian gem, that were restituted after they had been sold to a dealer who acquired works for Hitler, according to Lyons, the museum’s curator of antiquities. The works are now on exhibit at the Getty Villa.
Victoria Reed, the curator for provenance at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, said that she had found that the museum has three classical sculptures that were returned to a collector after having been confiscated by the Nazis and then restituted — a portrait bust of a statesman or philosopher and a young satyr, both now in storage, and a relief sculpture, which is on exhibit.
“Unlike old master paintings, many antiquities are extremely difficult to research,” she said. “They are not attributable to a particular artist and criteria, including a descriptive title, dimensions and conditions can change dramatically over a short period, with losses or additions.”
But Reed said the research is becoming easier. “Many books and catalogs are increasingly accessible through online digitizing services. The University of Heidelberg, the Getty Research Institute and the Berlin State Museums have collaborated to make available the contents of thousands of auction catalogs from Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Photo archives and digitized records of Nazi and Allied organizations are available online.”
Flouda, the curator of the Heraklion Museum who researched German excavations on Crete, said she is concerned that those tracking what happened to looted antiquities still do not have full access to research undertaken by some German and Austrian scholars.
“We don’t have all the evidence and we are not always in a position to know what documents are hidden in Germany and Austria,” she said. “But quite often new documents come to the fore and we cannot exclude the possibility that there were more excavations that we are not aware of.”