Arthur Brand has dedicated his life to researching stolen artwork. A job that has allowed him to rub shoulders with some of the most dangerous people in the world, from counterfeiters to members of major criminal organizations. In 2014, he received a color photograph in his office of two men posing next to two gigantic bronze equestrian statues. At first glance, the image, which could have been taken in any museum in the world, would not have been suspicious were it not for the the two sculptures with which Hitler decorated the staircase of his chancellery.
Horses guarded the entrance to the Reich Chancellery for years. From his office, Adolf Hitler I looked at their profiles every day while discussing the future of Germany. The corridors of the building were decorated with statues and paintings of exquisite taste, some looted — most of them — and others commissioned directly from their favorite artists. Josef Thorak was an important sculptor in Nazi Germany, protected by the leader and at the forefront of most of the sculptural works commissioned by the Reich.
Brand studied the photograph carefully, trying to find differences from the originals, which were thought to have been destroyed in the last days of the siege of Berlin. “It was too recent a photograph to be the original parts. Until then it was thought that they had disappeared during the Battle of Berlin“, dice.
In 1945, the chaos that was lived in the German capital put the Nazis in retreat, burning everything that could imply them at the end of the war. The horses, along with most of the furniture in the building, were plucked from their podiums and transported to a secret location.
Seven years after receiving that image, Arthur Brand presents Hitler’s horses (Espasa). A novel in which he collects the research and subsequent discovery of the sculptures. A true story with hints of a detective novel, with Brand himself telling this shocking story in the first person, starring former Nazis, spies and former KGB members.
“You can’t understand the Nazis without art”Brand explains over the phone in Spanish with a deep Dutch accent. The Nazis had turned artistic expression into one more gear in their propaganda. Thorak’s formalism, almost neoclassical, contrasted with heroic figures of great height, some reaching 20 meters. Albert Speer, Hitler’s personal architect, used on numerous occasions the services of the sculptor for the projects that the führer was developing for his ‘New Berlin’.
In their Memories, Speer gives a good account of the dictator’s fascination with art. Having failed in his endeavor to enter the Faculty of Fine Arts, rejected by his professors for his lack of imagination, and oblivious to the avant-garde, Hitler repudiated the “degenerate art” 20th century. Adopting at the same time a realistic style in accordance with the image he wanted to project on the country.
In the days leading up to his suicide in the Leadership bunker, the images taken by the Nazi newscasts show a bare facade, without the two statues. Brand later discovered that these had been hidden in a secret location prior to the Battle of Berlin. “At that moment I knew that the statues had to be somewhere, they had not been destroyed,” he recalls.
After the war, the Red Army took over most of the works, which in the late 1980s would become an important source of foreign exchange in the illegal market. Transported in 1950 to a sports field in EberswaldeNear the capital, three decades later – already forgotten – it was the neighbors themselves who alerted him to his disappearance. A case that was never resolved and from which different hypotheses arose, none confirmed so far.
A secret organization
At the end of the war, a whole black market was created that exchanged pieces of the Third Reich between East Germany and Russia. A business that in some cases supported the coffers of organizations in charge of offering protection former Party members. Silent help “Silent Help” was one of them. The group consisted of descendants and families of important Nazis of the Third Reich.
In 1988, a year before the fall of the Berlin Wall, a West German agent discovered the whereabouts of the horses and arranged their exchange, along with various Nazi works of art, with Soviet businessmen and military. “They crossed all of Germany with the horses in a truck”Brand explains still in disbelief. “Just imagining those three-meter sculptures, covering hundreds of kilometers, covered with plastic, is surreal.”
Twenty-six years later the statues reappeared. An important Nazi family wanted to get rid of the horses, asking eight million for both pieces and another eight for more National Socialist paraphernalia. A risky sale that had to be kept secret, near the bottom of an illegal market that experts say less than 10% of missing works are recovered.
Brand had to pose as an interested buyer to enter the murky waters of the illegal art market. “I was able to record the conversations I had with them with a hidden camera and I got to interview with Himmler’s daughter, Gudrum Burwitz, an important head of Stille Hilfe. ”Through a confidant and former buyer, Brand was able to access the names of some of the most prominent people in the smuggling of this type of artwork.
In 2015 the news jumped to the media. The author, together with the German police, had managed to locate the statues in a warehouse. When the agents entered the ship, the surprise was great. Tanks, V1 missiles, vehicles and other Nazi paraphernalia were piling up everywhere. Hidden behind all this waited the horses of Thorak, recovered at last. However, the investigation awaited one last surprise. From the shadows of the warehouse Most of the statues that decorated the interior of the Chancellery appeared, a collection of works of art believed to be looted, lost, or even worse, destroyed after the war.
A life at the service of art
A few weeks ago the news came out that horses will be part of the German historical heritage. The statues of Thorak will become part of an exhibition that aims to reunite German society with the slightest symptom of a past full of horror, its art. “You have to confront people with history, you should not only study it, you also have to see it”, explains Brand, who considers that it is positive that this type of works return to people and help “do not make the mistakes of the past”; and adds: “These types of artifacts and places must be prevented from becoming places of worship or pilgrimage, but they must never be destroyed.”
He is now immersed in research on the paintings of Francis Bacon robbed in Madrid in 2015. “They stole five, the police recovered three and there are still two more to be found. A few months ago I received a video showing precisely those two paintings, but we are still behind them.”
Having dedicated his entire life to the investigation of stolen works, the author remembers with special fondness the discovery of a work of Picasso, Woman bust (1938), stolen near Cannes in 1999 and recovered by the author himself. “I was able to hang it for a whole night in my living room before I gave it back to the police. I stared at it all night, it was an almost religious experience.”.
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