Provenance and the Echoes of Fascism

The Astronomer (Dutch: De astronoom). 1668, J. Vermeer.

An overview of Provenance Research and the case of the Special Commission Linz, Hitler’s Plan for a European museum.

This Article was initially published on the 24th of October 2020 for


In the 2017 movie adaptation of Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, John Cassetti (Johnny Depp), a con artist, remarks to Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) that some of his clients were unhappy with the provenance of what he sold to them. Naturally this was a euphemism for them being stolen or forged, but it may raise the question for some viewers what “provenance” exactly is? Generally provenance is the origin, or the history of ownership and transmission of an object. Cassetti’s buyers certainly wanted the art and rugs they acquired to go back to distinguished workshops and artists, moving through the hands of the rich and powerful. Let us not dwell on their disappointment though but think about what that illustrates? Provenance has legal implications and can imbue an object with additional value, it’s significance can even veer into the political as we will discuss below.

The event that has propelled Provenance Research into a somewhat higher status was the 1998 Washington Conference on Holocaust Era Assets which set 11Washington Principles for Governments to follow with regard to the identification and restitution of looted art, art that we will be coming back to. Yet these Principles, as is often with such matters of international politics, are non-binding. And thus little has been done to return much of the stolen art, mostly for lack of funding. Most recently a Melchers painting was returned after 87 years to the Mosse family. If even such singular paintings, out of a collection of 200 mind you, take almost 90 years to give back then it should paint a good picture of how difficult it has been to properly identify and place the hundreds of thousands of paintings that were present in Europe during the 30s and early 1940s not immediately accounted for.

Certain countries however have had moments that further increased the relevance of Provenance Research, for example between 2012-2013 the German Fall Gurlitt (Gurlitt Case) in which over 1400 works of art were found during a raid concerning tax evasion. Being kept a secret for a year and only being exhibited in 2017 with much of the provenance still unclear, it has moved many that are so artistically inclined to keep an eye on the research. To give some credit to the Germans though, the Lost Art Database in Magdeburg has been doing it’s work since 2001. 2017 was a good year for Provenance Research with the topic of restitution coming to the forefront in another way, Emmanuel Macron, President of the French Republic, commissioned a report regarding the potential restitution of works of art looted in the French colonies. People of many nations know about the vast collection of looted works in the British Museum, so the possibility for a former colonial power to return these works, at first just particularly important ones requested by African museums, is an exciting one. The potential (geo)political background that such action may have will not be discussed in detail here but it should be noted that what would be essentially a gifting of important cultural heritage, certainly brings with it diplomatic favor. Until now, no works have actually been shipped back though, going through the long and difficult French legal system which has cast doubt on the program of restitution, loans and reforms that Savoy and Sarr propose in their report. Once again one must stress the relevance of art and provenance to this legal and political process, had origin, ownership and transmission been different the constellation of political actors would not be assembled in the way they are on cultural issues.

Returning to Europe, and more precisely to Germany, I would like to shed some light on one of the largest cases for provenance, one that in part prompted and created the need for the 1998 Washington Conference, the so called Sonderauftrag Linz (Special Order, or Special Commission: Linz). General art theft by the Nazis is fairly well known, Linz though, a core reason for the theft of that art is often obscured into art history books often similarly nested within the larger issue of Nazi art theft.


The Special Order Linz was the initiative, ordered by the Führer himself in 1939, to reforge Hitler’s home city. Turning it from a calm town to the cultural capital of the new German Reich. The core of this plan would be a new painting gallery. As it was never completed, work only started to a very small degree, discussing the builders of that place therefore is of relatively small consequence though I should highlight the man tasked with the main Gallery itself, Roderich Fick. It is that Art Gallery’s collection, whose plans were at least partially designed by Hitler himself and inspired by the House of German History in Munich, that this piece will be focusing on as it was the center piece for the project and the best documented. The idea of a Hitlermuseum certainly did not enter the Führer‘s mind for the first time in 39, rather it was in 1925 where a younger Hitler made plans for a national gallery to be erected in Berlin. It would feature his favorite artists at the time and was architecturally inspired by the Kaiser Friedrich Museum (now Bode Museum) in Berlin. This is notable since both men that eventually took over as Special Envoys to the Special Order were connected to that museum.

Hans Posse

The first, was the Hans Posse (left), who started his career in Berlin as an assistant but quickly made a name for himself. Though he could be called a ruthless man even at a younger age, owed to the fact that he wanted to make plans to distribute the Louvre’s inventory to German museums should Paris ever fall into German hands, it is not unfair to call him ambitious and morally corrupt rather than a devout Nazi ideologue. During his time in Dresden he even started collecting expressionist paintings, a thing that lead him into conflict with the local NSDAP officials. It is here where we can see his moral flexibility again as he got rid of the paintings eventually and even attempted to join the party. He would not be permitted to join and that fiasco almost cost him his job as Special Envoy before he even got started. Yet, with flexibility and continued work for Hitler, Posse became more and more perpetrator rather than accomplice.

That work began, almost immediately, with Hitler’s own collection. This could be said to be the most legitimate part of all the whole collection though it was likely a hit to Hitler’s ego due to only a small fraction of it being fit for a Museum such as that planned at Linz. In July 1939 the Third Reich had already annexed Austria and Czechoslovakia, Poland, the Low Countries and France would soon follow at least in part. So after his visit of Munich, he would move quickly through the new territories aided by the SS which had been looting art for a year by that point, mostly from Jewish citizens. Relatively few works were taken for the Linz collection from Czechoslovakia and Poland, though the presence of the Rothschild estate in Vienna made that a prime target. It is wrong though to assume that the reason why Czechoslovakian and Polish art was not looted to a higher degree was because of ideological reasons such as Slavic art being lower grade in the eyes of the Nazis. This could have been true were it not for the fact, as art historian Birgit Schwarz points out, that affluent European citizens, Slavic or not, usually collected West European art as well.

Before traveling to Poland, roughly a year after the beginning of this Order, Posse would be sent to the Netherlands, unlike in the east here he would focus on the purchase of art. These transactions would not always be legitimate as threats and force were certainly used to get people to part from their belongings. Yet as Frederic Spotts points out, the Low Countries were a much more mercantile situation, with people, often even foes trading in at attempt to benefit from the tumultuous situation of the market. Inflation of value and even the internal party politics of the NSDAP lead to competition, chiefly between Hitler’s Posse, Göring‘s Μühlmann (who would support Posse in Poland) and Rosenberg’s ERR(Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg) which fluctuated between work for Hitler and his number two. In this environment he likely did his most important work by asserting the Führervorbehalt, that is, the right of Hitler and by extension Posse, to have the “first pick” of all looted artwork. Much less effort was required of Posse in France, as of July 1940 the aforementioned ERR took over the duties of art heisting and curating for the Führer. Here again we find the Rothschild family, and it is their name according to Spotts that lets Rosenberg convince Hitler to make him responsible for the Linz project in France. Rosenberg being one of the chief Nazi ideologues as well as his artistic background certainly helped in that. It is there in the french capital, hidden by the Rothschilds, that Rosenberg found Vermeer’s The Astronomer that adorns this article as well. One of the rarest of the old masters. So Posse only inspected the art works, likely attending to his own work but soon after departing for Poland.

The situation in the Soviet Union was surprising, the German-Soviet peace held relatively well into the spring and early summer of 1941 and the Sonderauftrag Linz could be found in those early months of 41 in Russia, attempting to convince the Soviets to “repatriate” German artworks. It was with Operation Barbarossa in June that the Führervorbehalt was extended into the occupied USSR. Here again Posse himself would take a more subdued role, letting his own “Special Envoy” Niels von Holst travel to the Soviet Union first. He would also later ally himself with the newly appointed Reichsminister for the eastern territories, Alfred Rosenberg. The same Rosenberg he had worked with in France. It was here that the famous Amber Room was stolen, never to be seen again. But it is here where the story of the Sonderauftrag also slowly started to turn with the Battle of Stalingran looming, only one year away.

Hermann Voss

It is then in 1942 that Joseph Goebbels spoke during the state funeral of a man that many Germans at the time likely would not have known very well. Hans Posse died in 1942 of cancer, before the NSDAP had revealed the plans for the museum in Linz a year later. The man who replaced him would be an even stranger choice than Posse himself. Hermann Voss (left), appointed at the recommendation of Posse, was friendly to democracy and Jews. This as well as Posse’s high personal involvement in the Special Order are likely reasons for his lesser role in the Linz project. The Special Envoy to the Führer no longer had authority over the armor and coin collections, only met rarely with Hitler himself and worked mostly through agents. Whether this was entirely due to his personal choice or the fact that he lacked the central position that Posse possessed is not fully apparent. In addition to changes in leadership the war was going increasingly badly, the already mentioned Stalingrad, Kursk and the Fall of Italy were a turn in the European theater and cultural initiatives such as Linz became increasingly insignificant. Despite this in his two years of activity until 1944 Voss claimed to have collected around 3000 artworks for the Hitlermuseum, though this number is likely inflated in order to make sure to stay on the Party’s good side.

To bring this then back to the topic of Provenance Research, it is evident that the Special Order had a large impact on transmission and the later politics and legal framework surrounding cultural artifacts. By some estimates there were over 6000 items that were collected for the Linz interest 4000 of those are supposed to be first grade paintings, though it is difficult to give exact numbers. Though this is just a fraction of art looted, 20000 works of art were looted from Austria alone, through it’s priority over other initiatives and due to it’s reach stretching over the whole Third Reich it represents an important part of Nazi art theft and not an insignificant portion of it in absolute numbers. The immediate restitution of works took over 17 years and even to this day there’s a small amount remaining, not accounting for works in various private collections. Here it is the example of the Low Countries that is particularly illustrating, a messy web of actors trading for maximum benefit. Thus, to this day, the question of provenance and restitution is not concluded.

Notes and a Chronology

One will notice quickly that, as is not uncommon in the literature for the matter as I have found, that the structure of this article does not follow the chronology of events. This stems mostly out of following Spotts in his structure while verifying events through Schwarz. The “home” provinces Germany and Austria, the early eastern front with, Czechoslovakia and Poland, the West with BeNeLux and France, the Soviet Union as a separate issue entirely and separating Voss even further. This categorization is sensible in so far as it lets us see territorial patterns such as the vast amount of loot gathered in Germany and Austria compared to the East, the important relationships of characters such as Posse, Mühlmann, Rosenberg in the West, etc. Yet, I believe it important. For it’s own novelty as well as for the convenience of the reader to disentangle the chronology of Posse’s visits, and the progression of looting, since he was the more important figure between the two Special Envoys.

The reason for the late and short visit in Czechoslovakia was due to the country being officially part of the “Great German Reich” rather than merely being occupied or a Nazi puppet which made it’s cultural heritage not immune to theft but meant that it was largely not provided to the Linz interest. Unlike the Austrian looting, there was also no Rothschild estate being leveraged against Hitler and the Party.

  • July 1939 – Munich
  • October 1939 – Austria
  • June 1940 – Low Countries
  • July 1940 – France *Under ERR
  • October 1940 – France
  • November 1940 – Poland
  • 1941 – Czechoslovakia, only very minor visits
  • 1941 – USSR *Under Niels von Holst
  • 1941 – USSR Multiple visits by Posse
  • December 1942 – Posse dies
  • March 1943 – Voss becomes Special Envoy


All internet sources on the state of the 24th of October, 2020.

1. Murder on the Orient Express, dir. Kenneth Branagh, Twentieth Century Fox, 2017. Based on the book by Agatha Christie.





6. Report on the Restitution of African Cultural Heritage, Sarr-Savoy, 2018


8. Schwarz, Birgit, Auf Befehlt des Führers, 2014, Theiss.

9. Schwarz, Birgit, Hitlers Museum: die Fotoalben Gemäldegalerie Linz, 2004, Böhlau.

10. Plaut, J.S., Hitler’s Capital, 1946, The Atlantic. 11. Spotts, Frederic, Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics, 2009, The Overlook Press


1. Vermeer, Jan, The Astronomer, 1668.

2. Hans Posse, Bundesarchiv

3. Hermann Voss,


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