Museum Stories

10 Most Important Masterpieces Lost During World War II

Zuzanna Stańska 26 January 2017 min Read

Art theft and looting occurred on massive scale during World War II. It all started with Adolf Hitler’s unsuccessful career as an artist. He was denied admission to the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts. Nonetheless, he thought of himself as a connoisseur of the arts and when became Führer, he had a dream to create the European Art Museum in Linz, that would collect all the greatest masterpieces in the world. The hunt for masterpieces kept in conquered countries begun.

German loot stored at Schlosskirche Ellingen, Bavaria (April 1945)
German loot stored at Schlosskirche Ellingen, Bavaria (April 1945)

Luckily, most of these items were recovered by agents of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program (MFAA), affectionately referred to as the Monuments Men – you know the movie and the book about them? Unfortunately many of this masterpieces are still missing. There is an international effort under way to identify Nazi plunder that still remains unaccounted for, with the aim of ultimately returning the items to the rightful owners, their families or their respective countries. Here is the list of 10 most important masterpieces that went missing or were destroyed during the II World War.

Warning: the stories written here are heart-breaking. I nearly cried when I compiled this list.

1. Raphael, Portrait of a Young Man, 1513/14

It’s Poland’s most famous art loss from WWII. Portrait of a Young Man was taken from the Czartoryski’s family collection in Krakow to be placed in Hitler’s Fuhrer museum in 1939. It went missing at the end of the war, but every couple of months unverified rumors suggest it was found somewhere – lately in a Swiss bank vault.

2. Vincent van Gogh, Painter on His Way to Work, 1888

Vincent van Gogh, Painter on His Way to Work, 1886, destroyed

This van Gogh was stolen by the Nazis and then lost by fire under Allied bomb attack on the town of Magdeburg, Germany. Luckily, the lost work have survived through print reproductions.

3. Gustave Courbet, The Stone Breakers, 1849


The Stone Breakers were destroyed during World War II, along with 154 other pictures, when a transport vehicle moving the pictures to the castle of Königstein, near Dresden, was bombed by Allied forces in February 1945.

4. Gustav Klimt, Philosophy, 1899-1907, ceiling panel for the Great Hall of Vienna University


Upon presenting his paintings commissioned by University of Vienna entitled Philosophy, Medicine and Jurisprudence, Klimt came under attack for ‘pornography’ and ‘perverted excess’ in the paintings. In the end, none of the paintings would go on display in the university. In the very very end, in May 1945 all three paintings were destroyed by retreating SS forces. In 1911 Medicine and Jurisprudence were bought by Klimt’s friend and fellow artist, Koloman Moser. Medicine eventually came into the possession of a Jewish family, and in 1938 the painting was seized by Germany. In 1943, after a final exhibition, they were moved to Schloss Immendorf, a castle in Lower Austria, for protection. In May 1945 the paintings were destroyed as retreating German SS forces set fire to the castle to prevent it falling into enemy hands. All that remains now are preparatory sketches and a few photographs. Only one photograph remains of the complete painting of Medicine, taken just before it was destroyed.

5. Andreas Schlüter: The Amber Room, 18th Century

Hand-coloured photograph of the original Amber Room, 1931
Hand-coloured photograph of the original Amber Room, 1931

The Amber Room is a world-famous chamber decorated in amber panels backed with gold leaf and mirrors, located in the Catherine Palace of Tsarskoye Selo near Saint Petersburg. Originally constructed in the 18th century in Prussia, the Amber Room disappeared during World War II and was recreated in 2003.

The Amber Room was looted during World War II by Army Group North of Nazi Germany and brought to Königsberg for reconstruction and display. Its current whereabouts remain a mystery.

6. Giovanni Bellini, Madonna with Child, c.1430

Bellini's Madonna and Child (Photo Courtesy of Art Loss Register)It is said that his masterpiece was moved from a Berlin museum to a Berlin-Friedrichshain flak tower which was located in an area under Russian control in the early 1940s. However, most of the objects in that said tower were either stolen or believed to be destroyed, including this particular Bellini piece.

7. Gustav Klimt, Portrait of Trude Steiner, 1900


This is a portrait of the daughter of Viennese collector Jenny Steiner and was taken by the Nazis after Stenier’s escape from Austria in 1938. It was consequently sold to an unknown person in 1941 and was never seen since then.

8. Rembrandt van Rijn, An Angel with Titus’ Features


Rembrandt van Rijn, An Angel with Titus’ Features lost during WWII. (Photo Courtesy of Art Loss Register)
This masterpiece was stored in a French countryside chateau before the Nazis took it with them to Paris in 1943. There, it was set aside to be installed in Hitler’s museum along with 332 other artworks. 162 of those pieces were found since but no leads for this one.

9. Canaletto, Piazza Santa Margherita


The search is still on for this Canaletto landscape. (Photo Courtesy of Art Loss Register)This landscape painting by Canaletto was part of Jacques Goudstikker’s private collection which the Nazis seized and purged after he fled to the Netherlands in 1940. Some of the artworks from that collection had been returned to Goudstikker’s heirs though art investigators are still looking for this one.

10. Edgar Degas, Five Dancing Women (Ballerinas)

This Degas pastel art piece was part of a Jewish art collector's treasures before WWII. (Photo Courtesy of Art Loss Register)


The Nazis got hold of this pastel work by Degas when they took Baron Mór Lipót Herzog’s collection, a Jewish-Hungarian art collector. The Baron Herzog’s heirs have filed a lawsuit against Hungary which seeks the return of his collection, though, this work seems to be lost.



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