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Army Can Keep Hitler Art, Justices Say

History: The high court let stand a ruling against Germans who wanted the paintings.

June 04, 2002|DAVID G. SAVAGE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Four watercolor paintings by Adolf Hitler are the property of the U.S. Army and need not be returned to the Germans who claim them as stolen artworks, under a ruling that the Supreme Court let stand Monday.

The justices turned down an appeal from the heirs of Hitler's photographer, Heinrich Hoffmann, who contended that the watercolors were illegally seized at the end of World War II.

In recent years, European courts have dealt with claims from heirs seeking to recover great works of art that were stolen from homes and museums during the Nazi era.

By contrast, the watercolors of street scenes were considered amateurish and valueless as art. But since they were signed "A. Hitler," they retained value as historical curiosities.

The German dictator spent his early twenties in Vienna, where he struggled to establish himself as a painter. He failed miserably and moved to Munich just before the outbreak of World War I.

His career as a politician was furthered by propagandists, including Hoffmann, who became the Nazi Party's official photographer. Hitler was a regular visitor to Hoffmann's home and studio, where he met his mistress, Eva Braun.

In 1936, Hitler presented Hoffmann with the watercolors as a birthday gift. Later, during the war, Hoffmann stored his collection of 2.5 million photographs, as well as the four watercolors, in a castle in Bavaria.

The U.S. Army found the collection at the war's end and sent the photographs to be used in the war crime trials at Nuremberg. The watercolors were quietly shipped to the United States and kept from public view at a storage facility in Washington.

Hoffmann died in 1957.

His son sought the return of the watercolors and photographs throughout the 1950s. In 1983, a Texas art collector, Billy F. Price, filed the first of a series of legal claims on behalf of himself and Hoffmann's heirs. Price had purchased the rights to some of the Hitler paintings.

But last year, a U.S. appeals court ruled that the watercolors were the property of the U.S. Army.

In Hoffmann vs. the U.S., 01-1111, the heirs argued that the American stance makes a "mockery" of its support for the prosecution of "wartime thefts of private artworks" in Europe. The justices dismissed the appeal.

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