It could be the plot of an Indiana Jones movie: A Viennese art historian believes he has discovered a looted art collection buried in the mountains of Germany — one that includes masterpieces by Monet, Cezanne, and Manet. This May, Burkhart List, 62, will lead an expedition into an old silver mine in the Erzgebirge Mountains, near the Czech-German border, where he believes over 150 works from the collection of Baron Ferenc Hatvany have been stashed for over 60 years. The trove could be worth almost $800 million, according to the Daily Mail, which first reported the story. But like every good Indiana Jones movie, this tale comes with a twist.
List claims he's not searching for the art to make money, but rather to further scholarship on the collection and return it to the public. There may be other treasure buried along with Hatvany’s art, but “that’s not my business,” he told ARTINFO in an interview. “I am only doing this to find the Hatvany collection.”
But sources tell ARTINFO that the Hatvany heirs might have reason to be suspicious of List's expedition. The scholar admits he hasn’t been in contact with the heirs, nor is he working with the Commission for Art Recovery, which represents the Hatvany family in its own mission to retrieve its lost art. “We’re putting them [List's expedition] on notice, and if anything is found, it belongs to the heirs of Hatvany, and the heirs will claim it,” Charles Goldstein, chief counsel to the Commission for Art Recovery, told ARTINFO.
The tale is a twisted one, like many involving Nazi loot. Before the war, Baron Ferenc Hatvany was as famous a collector in Europe as John D. Rockefeller was in America. A descendent of one of Hungary’s richest Jewish families, his holdings included rare tapestries, Old Masters, and one of the world’s best collections of 19th-century French painting. (Famously, the only painting the Nazis allowed him to keep was Gustave Courbet’s notorious “L’Origine du monde,” because they said it had no artistic value.)
Today, only a handful of paintings have been returned to the Hatvany heirs. Some are on view in prominent Russian museum collections, but most remain missing. “It’s entirely possible that there is a stash of them located in Germany, because we know the Germans went to the Hatvany palace in Budapest during the war — they had a list, and they grabbed what they wanted,” Goldstein explained. He also noted that after the war, U.S. forces retrieved hundreds of artworks buried in salt mines similar to the ones List is eyeing, since they are an ideal climate for storing art.
However, the Commission remains circumspect. "Chances are even if they find loot, it won't be intact — this was wartime, and no one had time to expertly wrap 250 to 500 objects," said Agnes Peresztegi, executive director of the Commission for Art Recovery, Europe, adding that the storage space would have had to be airtight for 68 years to keep the works in good condition. "They may find a link to Hungarian origins, but all the missing objects from the Hatvany collection is unlikely."
If art is indeed discovered, German law states that the finder must notify the original owner of the property, according to Berlin-based lawyer Jutta Freifrau von Falkenhausen. If the owner cannot be determined, the finder splits the title to the property with the owner of the land where it is found.
So just how did a Viennese historian end up scouring the German mountainside for the lost Hatvany collection in the first place? The historian told ARTINFO he has been studying the collection for 12 years, and recently discovered documents in old Wehrmacht archives that suggested a number of works were shipped in 1944 to two subterranean bunkers north of Dresden.
With the permission of the town’s mayor, List used a neutron generator to probe the landscape and discovered man-made caves buried 180 feet under the earth similar to the ones described in the Nazi documents. So far, he has found little more than a Schmeisser machine gun and a Nazi gas mask in the area. But he plans to lead a more extensive expedition of researchers in May with the aid of what he described to ARTINFO as an “American media group,” which will document the process. “It’s been a long work, and a long research,” he said. “I’m not 100 percent sure, but I am very sure that we are in the right place.” He declined to elaborate further on his arrangement with the media company, saying only that “if we find the paintings, then they will pay a lot of money.”
Though List said he would surrender whatever art he finds to the German government, some suspect he may have another endgame in mind. In what would be a further twist, sources have suggested that List may be working with Joram Deutsch, the Swiss son of a former lawyer for the Hatvanys, who believes he has a claim on any newly-discovered art because of an agreement between his father and the family. However, Goldstein counters that Deutsch’s father's claim was later superseded, but his son “has it in his mind that his father is owed something by the Hatvanys if they find art.” In 2004, Deutsch made a similar claim to an El Greco painting from the National Gallery of London on behalf of his father; a judge dismissed the case.
“These guys are treasure hunters looking to make money,” said Goldstein.
Both Deutsch and List emphatically denied to ARTINFO that the former had any involvement with List's project, though Deutsch did say that List "has my blessings for it." The two men have been associated in the past: They worked together on a documentary film, "Deutschland versus Deutsch," which chronicled Deutsch's father's relationship to the Hatvany collection. That film, in fact, addresses the notion that works from the Hatvany collection may be secreted in German salt mines. Last year, an article in a Czech newspaper claimed that Deutsch's former lawyer was also planning an expedition for Nazi treasure buried south of Prague. (Deutsch noted he has not employed that lawyer for a number of years.) Neither Deutsch nor List commented on whether they believe Deutsch that might have a claim to whatever art is discovered.
List maintains he has only the best intentions for his impending adventure. “The money is not important — that’s only for Americans,” he said. “For me, the research is important, and to find the artworks.”