The Victoria and Albert Museum published a remarkable document online today: the Nazis’ inventory of “degenerate art” (entartete Kunst). The V&A owns the only known complete copy of the inventory, which was made around 1942 and catalogues more than 16,000 artworks in two books and 482 pages. Now it’s released digital copies of both volumes online under a Creative Commons license, making them freely available for anyone to download and peruse in all their fascinating detail.
The books are organized alphabetically by city, within which they’re further subdivided alphabetically by museum and then by artist’s name. The V&A describes the organization of the pages:
Each page gives the name of the city and museum at the top, followed by two groups of columns containing information about each artwork. The first columns provide a running number, the artist’s surname, the inventory number and a short title. The remaining columns provide additional details, and were evidently added later. The contents include information about the medium and the buyer or dealer (if any), a code indicating the exhibition history or fate of the work, and any payments made in foreign currency and/or Reichsmarks.
The museum offers some explanation of the code, noting that an “X” means an artwork was destroyed, while “V” shows a sale and “T,” an exchange. There’s also a key at the beginning of the first book that explains further abbreviations, some of which I was able to decipher with the help of Google Translate. There are three codes — “E,” “EK,” and “EZ” — that indicate a work was shown in the Nazis’ infamous Degenerate Art exhibition, while “EJ” means it was shown in the Wandering Jew exhibition. Others, like “NK” and “Sfr,” denote types of currency (Norwegian crowns and Swiss francs, respectively), and still others seems to indicate the medium of a work, with “A” standing for aquarell, or watercolor, and “G” standing for graphik, graphic art.
The Nazis are known for having been meticulous record keepers, and the inventory is no exception: although it’s not entirely complete (some works are listed as having been shown in an exhibition, beyond which there’s nothing), it is extremely extensive. The amount of art that passed through the Nazis’ hands is mind-boggling. Certain dealers’ names come up frequently, among them one Dr. Gurlitt, whose reclusive son was outed last year for having stashed a trove of artwork he inherited from his father in his Munich apartment.
“X” marks also appear quite often, and it’s hard to visualize just how much art the Nazis destroyed. As a micro example, a page in the first book shows a list of 34 artworks by Emil Nolde originally housed in Berlin’s National Gallery; 27 were destroyed.
The inventory is daunting in length and detail, and it’s challenging to know just what to do with a document that, while it contains a wealth of information, also feels difficult to fully unlock. I couldn’t help wanting to take the story further, to know where all those sold and traded artworks went once they passed out of the Nazis’ hands. Fortunately, there is a way to connect many of these pieces to the present day: an online database maintained by the Freie Universität Berlin. You can plug an artwork’s inventory number from the Nazi log books directly into their search engine, and it will pull up a record.
On a whim, I picked one of some two dozen Ernst Kirchners listed, like the Nolde, in the entry for the Berlin National Gallery. I went with “Strasse” (Street), sold by dealer Karl Buchholz for what looks like 160 Swiss francs, a relatively large sum compared to many of the others listed. I typed 16042 into the database, hit search, and there it appeared: “Street,” oil on canvas, painted by the artist in 1913. Where is it now? The Museum of Modern Art in New York, where — of course, because how else would these things go? — I’ve stood before it many times.
h/t Modern Art Notes