Old And Sold Antiques Auction & Marketplace
Antiques Digest Browse Auctions Appraisal Home

Old And Sold Antiques Digest Article

The Loot Of Many Wars

( Orginally published 1962 )



Sometimes when the chaos of war is over, loot, fabulous in value, fantastic in historic worth, is scattered all over the globe. Sometimes it is distributed as booty to the soldiers who have done their job well. Other times it is disposed of with the help and advice of the authorities. And sometimes it is lost-never to be found again.

Where are these "casualties" of battle? Many of them have been destroyed in the many and varied wars which have raged across the face of the earth. Some of them have been burned in fires set by the soldiery, and some of them have found their way into the knapsacks and saddle bags of the soldiers.

Many times a soldier brought home a "souvenir," something he thought might make a pretty gift for the girl back home. What he actually brought back is a magnificent treasure from the castles and homes of a looted and defeated nation.

Often the loot was distributed as booty by the commanders, as was the case with the rug of Khosrau, which was not just any rug, but a creation made for the audience hall of the Persian king, Khosrau, who ruled in the sixth century.

The rug was designed to represent a common enough motif, that of eternal spring, yet the design was so fabulous that it has never been forgotten.

Barley fields of emeralds formed the border. Paths in the rug's landscape were paths of pearls, and the brooks were made of stones which probably were diamonds. Even common dirt became gold in this magnificent specimen of the rug maker's art.

Cost of this fantastic rug? $200,000,000. The rug was designed for the audience hall of a king, yet the king was not to retain his rug, for the Byzantines attacked and Khosrau fled before them.

His rug was the price he paid for his retreat. His captors took his fabulous rug, fit only for a king, and cut it up and distributed it as war booty-one fifth to Caliph Omar; another large piece to Ali; and the rest was cut up and handed over, piece by piece, to sixty thousand soldiers who, in their turn, sold their pieces. Perhaps, if you are lucky enough, you might find one of the small but still fabulous pieces of the rug of Khosrau.

Sometimes loot is disposed of with the help and advice of the authorities. There was an eighteenth-century jade altar set which was disposed of in this way.Lord James Bruce Elgin, English soldier, commanded the troops at Peking, China, in the year 1860. At this time the Summer Palace was looted and burned. The booty taken during this burning included the jade altar set, which was then sold under the direct supervision of the military.

The set was purchased by a British officer in Peking and remained in the hands of his family until 1949, when Gump's, in San Francisco, acquired the set, which they evaluated at $22,000.

Sometimes there is a general type of objet d'art missing. Because there are so many of that type extant-yet no particular one is definitely known to be missing-the best course to follow is to simply keep your eyes open, knowing that someday, sooner or later, you will run across a supreme example of that particular type of objet d'art.

There were, in the past, carvings of ivory made that were so fine that they upheld the highest standards of art experts. Yet, though there were many such pieces produced, mostly in the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, war swept across the lands and the ivories became lost.

In England, during the Reformation, many of these carvings were lost, as well as in France during the Revolution. Marvelous examples of this art were perhaps lost forever unless the treasure hunter can locate them and place them in the hands of the collectors or the museum curators, where they belong.

There were some pieces saved, of course, like the thirteenthcentury casket which is today in the Kensington Museum; but there is still an uncounted number of missing ivories, displaced by reform and revolution, hiding perhaps in some country town in Europe or in the backwaters of America where someone took them without even knowing what they were. They are waiting for someone to recognize them for the treasures they are.

Often, after the battle is over, one does not even know what is missing or what to look for.

America was at war with England, and in August of 1814, two years after the start of the War of 1812, British troops entered the city of Washington. The sun had gone down, and darkness shrouded the city as the British troops invaded, accomplishing their purpose almost without resistance.

They gutted almost every official building in the city with fire, including the Capitol, the Treasury, and the bridge over the Potomac. Some of the smaller private residences also went to the torch. The only official public building which they did not set afire was the one which was the combination Post Office and Patent Office.

The most important of all the buildings they burned, from the standpoint of tradition, was the White House, and with it they destroyed items which would be of great importance to the students of Early Americana-if they could find them.

What objects may have been saved from the fire in the White House, by loyal Americans, or even, perhaps, by British troops, no one knows. It is not known what pieces of furniture, state papers, books or paintings were burnt, and since descriptions of the furnishings of the White House up to the time of the burning are inadequate, we may never know what was saved and what was destroyed by the fire.

That is why there is no way of telling what the treasure hunter should look for in his search for treasures from the White House as it was before the fire.

If you own or find something which can be proven, by papers or family traditions (verifiable of course), to have been in the White House at the time of the burning, having been removed shortly before or during that great holocaust, then surely you have a piece of Americana which would be well worth having appraised by an expert.

There is only one of the items about which we have definite knowledge. This is the large painting of George Washington which was then hanging in the White House. As every school child knows, it was Dolly Madison who saved this painting, but we have no information about any of the other items which were there at that time.

Maybe they were destroyed in the fire, and maybe one of them is in your attic, saved perhaps by an ancestor or possibly bought in a second-hand store after having been bought and sold generation after generation by people who did not know what they had. Perhaps, when you find it, you will know what it is and where it came from-and head with it for the nearest museum.

Sometimes, information on war loot is harder to find than the actual war loot itself, as, for example, the "lost treasures" of the Civil War. Though not strictly "loot," they are a case in point.

There are numerous stories about the treasures buried by the southerners-in the walls of their plantations and in the spacious grounds of their homes-when the Yankees invaded. But no matter where you look, the treasures seem to have evaporated as though they were genies of the air.

From such sources as the Library of Congress, the Chambers of Commerce in Harrisonburg, Virginia, Savannah, Georgia, and Richmond, Virginia, and from Cliff Arquette of Gettysburg, comes a dearth of information-because there is no information to be had.

Often other cities are suggested; sometimes it is pointed out that much of the "lost treasure" was restored after the war; sometimes the files do not disclose any treasures at all, and sometimes the files are so extensive that it is impossible to search through them.

The cities of the north which were invaded by the Rebels have also been suggested as possible places to search for buried war treasure, but here, again, the stories are nebulous.

No one seems to know exactly where the treasures might be, and this, certainly, is not due to any lack of effort on the part of treasure hunters. It may be because there really is a lack of Civil War treasure.

There might be something left, however, buried in an old garden, hidden in an old trunk, or buried behind the wallpaper and bricks of another day. If there is-and you find it-you have hit a bonanza in a very barren field.

But don't give up. Wherever there has been a skirmish, a battle, or a full-scale war, there is good hunting ground for the treasure seeker. When armies invade, people hide their valuables-and occasionally they don't live long enough to claim their property, leaving it for future generations to find.

An American soldier was two thousand feet into the innards of the earth in a salt mine near the town of Bernterode, Austria. His job was to remove dynamite from the mine which only shortly before had belonged to the Germans.

Yet there was something in the mine besides dynamite, something he did not expect to find: a concrete wall! After some discussion with his officer, it was decided that if it was important enough for the Germans to build a concrete wall to protect something, it was important enough for the Americans to dig it out.

After arduously breaking a small hole through the six-foot thick concrete, the soldier crawled through, and the first thing he saw was a painting of a nude woman. Outside the wall his commanding officer was utterly amazed when he heard the excited shouts of the soldier: "Here's a nude! My God, it must be art!"

It was art. What the soldier had seen was only one of the paintings of the great French collection from Potsdam, Germany. Yet not only were these famous paintings hidden here by the Germans but there were also the coffin of Frederick the Great, the coffins of Marshal Paul von Hindenburg and his wife, swords that had belonged to Frederick the Great, and the crown jewels of the Hohenzollerns.

Finding these lost treasures was a part of America's job following World War II-helping to locate, to reassemble, and to redistribute the works of art looted by the Germans.

There were many men who helped in this great task, and there were at least two, during the course of the war, who lost their lives to the cause of preserving these works of art for future generations.

General Eisenhower himself inspected some of these works of art which had been hidden by the Germans. At Merkers, Germany, he inspected one cache which had been captured by the Third Army. This treasure, left behind in a salt mine by the Germans during a hurried retreat, consisted of millions of dollars worth of art, bullion, and paper money.

When the Italians wanted to return the eight-ton, horse-backmounted statue of Cosimo I de Medici to its former location, they were stymied. The Germans themselves had been unable to move the statue because it was too heavy for them, and the Italians were having almost as much trouble.

They had separated the horse from the statue of Cosimo, and they had planned to move the statue slowly, carefully and majestically in two parts, a job that might have taken weeks. The Yanks appraised the situation and casually loaded the statue on a tanktransport and began to move. Italians stood by the roadside shouting bravo-until it was discovered that there was another obstacle in the way. Overhead wires would obstruct the truck load.

When the bravos of the Italians faded away to groans, an American GI climbed up into the truck bed and from there he vaulted, a la Wyatt Earp or one of the James brothers, onto the saddle of Cosimo's horse. The truck moved forward, the GI stayed in the saddle-and cut down the wires as the truck moved forward. All this to the sounds of the once again cheering Italians.

Result? One statue and one horse returned to its rightful owners. The list of these items which the Americans returned after the war is almost endless. In 1946, by count, there were more than four hundred mines, public buildings, etc., which held missing works of art, put there either for "safe-keeping" or as a part of the German loot of war. Many of these works of art have, today, been reassembled. The Americans found one whole mountain which was filled with over one hundred thousand assorted objets d'art.

There are, however, to this day treasures that have never been found. Any of them which could be found today, possibly among the souvenirs a soldier brought back with him from Europe, could be worth a fortune.

Various art collections became so scattered during World War II that parts of them have never been found. In Europe, thirty-seven paintings from the Finally collection, eight from the Contini collection, as well as seven paintings from Poppi and Soci were lost.

Also still missing is one of the finest antiquities in the world. Dating from the tenth century, it is a manuscript known as the Codex Aesinas of Tacitus.

Owner of the manuscript at the time of its disappearance was Count Baldeschi Balleani of Jesi, and during the ferocity of the war the manuscript was, allegedly, safe at the Vatican. This last information is based on a statement by the overseer of the Villa Fonte d'Amo. Upon further questioning, the overseer said that the manuscript might not be at the Vatican but might be "elsewhere." However, it was his honest belief that the manuscript was safe.

The Vatican, however, stated that the manuscript was not in their hands-neither in their library nor in the Archivio Segreto. To this day, the Codex has never been located.

Nor have many items from the fabled city of Florence been found, where many art treasures completely disappeared from its museums and galleries.

After the Americans took Florence they began the immense job of returning its art works and helping to repair the traditional beauty of the city. They also aided in cataloging the items they could not find, the treasures that had mysteriously disappeared during the battle. Perhaps they were hidden so well by the Germans that they still remain hidden-and will remain hidden until some lucky finder unearths them. Perhaps they were destroyed in the course of the battle. Or maybe they were picked up, by GI souvenir hunters.

Perhaps a GI in your hometown brought home one of the items on the following list-a list compiled for me by T. Rossi, Il Soprintendente, Soprintendenza alle Gallerie, Florence. These items all disappeared from Florence. They are still missing.

Included in the list (sizes are given in centimeters) are the names of the galleries, etc., from which each object disappeared, the name of the artist, and its description:

GALLERIE DEGLI UFFIZI
(1)-Inv. 1890 # 1123-Memling's School-Portrait of an unknown man. Painted on board; 0.35 x 0.24
(2)-Inv. 1890, #1554-Agnolo Bronzino-Christ laid down. Painted on copper; 0.42 x 0.30
(3)-Inv. 1890, #8268-A. del Pollaiuolo-Hercules striking the Hydra. Painted on board; 0.175 x 0.112
(4) -Inv. 1890 .# 1478-A. del Pollaiuolo-Hercules killing Antaeus. Painted on board; 0.16 x 0.95
(5)-Inv. 1890 .#2185-Lorenzo di Credi-Self portrait. Painted on board; 0.34 x 0.30

NATIONAL MUSEUM (1) Sculpture Inv. No. 59-Pierino da Vinci-Virgin nursing her child, and Saints. Marble relief (2) Sculpture Inv. No. 94-Italian art of the end of XVI Cent.(Sometimes attributed to Michelangelo) -Faun's mask

PALATINA GALLERY (Pitti Palace)
(1) Inv. Palatina Gall. #26-Domenico Feti-The parable of the vineyard. Painted on board; 0.75 x 0.44
(2) Inv. Palatina Gall. #462-John Van Huysum-Flower vase. Painted on canvas; 0.47 x 0.35
(3) Inv. Palatina Gall. #253-In the fashion of Correggio-The Manger. Painted on board; 0.341 x 0.245
(4) Inv. Palatina Gall. #263-Bronzino's school-Christ on the Cross. Painted on board; 0.28 x 0.181
(5) Inv. Palatina Gall. $k282-Van Dyck School-Virgin with the Child, and Saints. Painted on copper;
0.218 x 164. (6) Inv. 1890 #4996-School of Bologna-Annunciation. Painted on copper; 0.35 x 0.27


UFFIZI GALLERY (ROOM OF DRAWINGS AND PRINTS)
(1) Inv. of Drawings #6127-Callot-Saint Anthony's Temptation. Pen drawings; 0.47 x 0.75
(2) Inv. of Drawings #738-Tintoretto-The body of Christ dead. Pen drawing; 0.28 x 0.69
(3) Inv. of Drawings #1774-Raffaello-The Virgin, named "of the veil." Drawing with black pencil and chalk; 0.77 x 0.73
(4) Inv. of Drawings #96774-Annibale Caracci-Figure of beardless man in the act of pulling ropes. Drawing of fragmentary carbon, cut out and applied to cardboard; 1.79 x 0.85

Where are these or any of the other treasures that were lost in the war? They just might be in the hands of GI souvenir hunters, and, if they are, they are very lucky-if they are aware of the fact.

War loot has been brought home by Yankee soldiers before. Why not this time? Possibly they brought back a work of art they enjoyed, not even beginning to realize its value or the fact that it is a masterpiece or an ancient manuscript. It may be lost forever if they do not realize what it is they have. But if they do, it could be worth a fortune.