Trove of "Degenerate" Artworks Thought Destroyed by Nazis Is Unearthed in Berlin

Trove of "Degenerate" Artworks Thought Destroyed by Nazis Is Unearthed in Berlin

During recent construction on a subway line near Berlin's city hall, workers unearthed 11 sculptures that were once condemned by the Nazis as "degenerate." Ten of the works will be shown in Berlin's Neues Museum starting tomorrow. (The eleventh, a terra cotta male head, is too fragile for display.)

The office building that once stood on the site burned to the ground during Allied bombing in the summer of 1944, burying the terra cotta and bronze sculptures in the rubble. It is not known how the pieces came to be stored there, but it is possible that Erhard Oewerdieck, a tax advisor and escrow agent who had an office in the building, may have played a role. The Sueddeutsche Zeitung posits that Oewerdieck and his wife Charlotte, who were known to harbor Jews in their home, were perhaps entrusted with the works.

One sculpture, Edwin Scharff's "Portrait of Anni Mewes," was found in January but was thought to be a unique treasure. Subsequent digs in August and October, however, turned up the other pieces. Some of the works by Scharff, Otto Baum, Marg Moll, Gustav Heinrich Wolff, Naum Slutsky, Karl Knappe, Otto Freundlich, and Emy Roederwere damaged by fire, many bronzes had acquired a heavy patina. 

Several of the sculptures were featured in Nazi minister of propaganda Joseph Goebbels's 1937 exhibition of "Entartete Kunst" or "Degenerate Art," which traveled around Germany and Austria displaying hundreds of artworks condemned by the Third Reich as an affront to its nationalist ideology and Aryan ideals. Although the Nazis associated "degenerate" art with the Jews, only two of the works found were created by Jewish artists (Freundlich and Slutsky).

Freundlich, whose 1925 terra cotta statue of a man's head suffered damage, died in the Lublin-Maidanek concentration camp in 1943. Bauhaus artist Slutsky, meanwhile, escaped to England in 1933 and died there in 1965. His bronze "Female Bust" was damaged by fire and has been partially restored, the AP reports.

According to the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, the works belong to the city of Berlin because they were found during an archaeological excavation. Archaeologists that were present at the subway construction site had hoped that they might discover traces of the city's medieval past. Instead, they uncovered a very different kind of artifact. As Berlin mayor Klaus Wowerweit said in a statement, "the history of the last 60 years has been burned into" these sculptures.