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Albums cataloging Nazi-looted art presented to National Archives

  • Story Highlights
  • Albums catalog artwork Nazis looted from French collections
  • Purpose of albums was for Hitler to select which pieces he wanted
  • Nazis looted thousands of items throughout Europe during World War II
  • U.S. soldier found albums near the end of war, brought them home with him
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By Silvio Carrillo
CNN Washington Bureau
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The discovery of two albums detailing stolen French art that the Nazis were to take to Germany for Adolf Hitler's personal collection was announced Thursday at the National Archives.

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"Salon Scene" by Francois Boucher is among art shown in newly discovered albums of items looted by the Nazis.

The leather-bound albums created by a special unit of the Third Reich contain photographs of art by Hubert Robert and Francois Boucher.

Allen Wallenstein, chief archivist of the United States, called it, "One of the most significant finds related to Hitler's premeditated theft of art and other cultural treasures to be found since the Nuremberg trials."

American troops found 39 similar albums near the end of World War II and used them as evidence against Nazi war criminals during the trials, but historians think even more are out there.

"From the records, we believe there may have been up to 85 of these albums put together by the Nazis for Hitler and for their purposes. So these are the first two that have surfaced in, obviously, many decades," said Michael Kurtz, assistant archivist for records services at the National Archives.

The Nazis looted hundreds of thousands of cultural items throughout Europe over the span of the war, mostly confiscating art from world-renowned Jewish-owned art collections.

Art seizures from France totaled 21,903 objects from more than 200 collections, taking close to 9,000 pieces from the Rothschild, David-Weill and Kann family collections alone, according to documents.

Soldiers filled 30 rail cars for the first shipment from France to Germany. That initial shipment contained Vermeer's "Astronomer," now on exhibit at the Louvre in Paris.

The albums were originally created by the Einstatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR), a special Paris-based unit organized by Alfred Rosenberg in 1940. Later that year, Hitler ordered all confiscated works of art to be brought to Germany. According to archivists, the catalogs were to be used so Hitler could pick and choose artwork for a museum to be created in Linz, Austria.

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The albums document "the relationship of the Nazi hierarchy to Hitler. This is all meant to demonstrate their loyalty, their proficiency. It demonstrates many other things as well, so that's part of the significance of having yet another one of these albums surface," Kurtz said. "There was a lot of competition amongst the top Nazis to get the best art."

The albums announced at the event came from the descendants of an American soldier stationed in Germany who found them at Hitler's home in Berghof, tossed them into his rucksack and brought them home with him. They sat in an attic for years until the family of the now-deceased soldier contacted the Monuments Men Foundation for the Preservation of Art, a group that helps to recover and find the home of previously stolen artwork.

"I think [the soldier's family] understood the importance of it, but at the same point in time, it was a perplexing situation. ... They were concerned, like anyone that would have these things, about not wanting to be in trouble," said Robert Edsel, president of Monuments Men, who met with the family of the soldier and presented Album 8 to the National Archives. A letter of intent to donate Album 6 also was presented to the Archives. In the meantime, it will tour the U.S. with Edsel.

Officials hope to be able to recover more of this kind of documentation.

"Our hope is that the publicity and the education that Mr. Edsel and his foundation are going to attain are going to make people aware of these things, and perhaps ... as other GIs have picked up some of these albums and their families realize that these are things that should come to the National Archives, should be preserved and should be made available," Kurtz said. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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