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Germans call for return of paintings in the National Maritime Museum seized by British troops

The London museum has turned down two previous requests for restitution

Pressure is mounting for the return of paintings seized from Germany in 1945 and now at the National Maritime Museum in London. In January we revealed that Claus Bergen’s Wreath in the North Sea in Memory of the Battle of Jutland had been taken by British troops from the Mürwik Naval Academy. The following month we reported that six additional German paintings had come to the museum as war trophies (January 2007, pp1,8; February 2007, pp10,11).

Professor Lars Scholl, director of the German Maritime Museum in Bremerhaven and a Bergen specialist, last month called for the restitution of the pictures: “It would be desirable to return them to Germany, so that they could play an important role in changing our views on the issues of propaganda and war trophies. In Germany the paintings could be displayed in a more relevant context than in England, showing the role of marine art under the Nazis.”

In 1978 the Bremerhaven museum played a key role in securing the return of ten Bergen paintings which had been seized by American forces in 1945. These had then gone to the US Navy Memorial Museum in Washington, DC and various naval bases. Their restitution required a special act of Congress. The ten Bergens are now owned by the German government. U Boat Commander is on loan to the Bremerhaven museum and the remainder to the German Historical Museum in Berlin.

Another Bergen specialist, Jörg-Michael Hormann, is also calling for the pictures at Greenwich to be returned to Germany. He believes the German Historical Museum would be the most appropriate home, since it is the ­“collection point” for art of the Nazi period.

There have already been two German claims for war trophies in the National Maritime Museum, in 1965 and 1989, but both were rejected. The 1965 claim, which was for ship models seized from Mürwik, was rejected, on the grounds of insufficient evidence and the difficulties of deaccessioning.

We have now established that there was a second claim, in January 1989, for Carl Saltzmann’s “German Fleet Manoeuvres on the High Seas”. The request from the German navy was submitted to the British naval attaché in Bonn, who forwarded it to Lord Lewin, Admiral of the Fleet and chairman of the National Maritime Museum. The Germans argued that the Saltzmann painting was “an historically important document for the Mürwik Naval Academy and it has left an irreplaceable gap in its collection”.

In addition to Wreath in the North Sea, there are three other Bergen paintings at the National Maritime Museum from Germany: “The Commander (U Boats), Admiral Hipper’s Battle Cruiser” at Jutland and “The German Pocket Battleship Admiral Von Scheer Bombarding the Spanish Coast”. Other trophy paintings are Saltzmann’s “German Fleet Manoeuvres on the High Seas” and two works possibly by Erhardt, “Before the Hurricane at Apia” (Samoa) and “During the Hurricane at Apia”. Legally, the acquisition of trophy paintings appears to breach the 1907 Hague Convention on the conduct of warfare, which states that “all seizure of…works of art…is forbidden”.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Germans call for return of paintings seized by British troops'