In the 1920s, Friedrich Gutmann, a German-Jewish banker living in Holland, and his wife, Louise, added a Degas drawing, Landscape With Smokestacks, to their collection. When World War II marched over the horizon, the Gutmanns transferred much of their collection into storage in France, but of course that wasn’t far enough to stay out of the way of the Nazis’ grasping advance. After Germany invaded Holland, the Gutmanns were arrested. Friedrich Gutmann was beaten to death after refusing to transfer the family’s assets to the Nazis. Louise Gutmann was sent to Auschwitz, where she was killed.
The Gutmanns’ children, Lili and Bernard, managed to escape the Nazis, and after the war they searched without success for what was left of their family: the paintings that had decorated their childhood. Bernard, who stayed on the trail of his parents’ collection his entire life, concluded that most of the collection, including the Degas, had disappeared behind the Iron Curtain. The German government eventually paid them a small compensation.
But memory is stronger than reason, and when Bernard—now surnamed Goodman—died in 1994, his sons took up the search with renewed vigor. A family Renoir was spotted in an old auction catalog, and the Degas drawing resurfaced in a New York catalog, its owner listed as George Searle, a trustee of the Art Institute of Chicago. The threads of their parents’ legacy were appearing here and there, but the connivance of time and buried connections made regaining the work seem like an insurmountable task. The Goodmans needed someone to render the past visible.
The man the Goodmans called for help in reclaiming their past was Willi Korte. Korte is the art world’s Sherlock Holmes, with a frequent-flier card instead of a funny hat. He just may be the only person in the world dedicated, full-time, to returning artistic property to its rightful owners. Korte has scoured archives in Belgium. He has sniffed out mysteries in the Ukraine. He has battled museum bureaucracies in the former West Germany—and investigated church thefts in what was then East. He has wined and dined with Washington diplomats. He has set up police stings in New York. He is, he says, the National Archives’ “best customer.” The Goodmans’ intractable dilemma was exactly the kind of work Korte excels at.
Via Korte, the Goodman brothers corresponded with Searle about the Degas for most of a year, while putting together a record of where it had been. All in all, between the search for the painting and their efforts to put together a provenance, Korte estimates they sent out 2,500 to 3,000 letters.
“I’m the guy who’s been doing it, so when I come along, they know I’m serious,” he says.
While there is no statute of limitations on art theft in the United States, and Korte came up with a paper trail showing that the Degas was ill-gotten, in the end, Searle wouldn’t play. Korte found that posture indefensible.
“I mean, what argument is he going to make about the historical context of this painting? He can make the usual legal argument, but he can’t go out and say, ‘Well, the Gutmanns should have taken better care of their damn painting before they were sent to the concentration camp!’” So the Searle defense has been that Korte and the Gutmanns’ grandsons have the wrong painting. Confident that Korte had found their man, the Goodmans filed suit against Searle in July. The case is currently pending.
Korte was able to assist the Goodmans even though he sleuths his way through Europe’s past and art history’s present without institutional backing, guaranteed income, or even, really, title. He earns a modest income from the budgets he is given by theft victims to search for their paintings, and from his sideline as a principal at Trans-Art, a Washington firm that helps collectors make sure their prospective art acquisitions aren’t stolen goods. The professional world has yet to create a job title for Korte. Although trained as a historian and a lawyer, the German-born Korte calls himself a “researcher.”
But the object of Korte’s desire isn’t just the particular work sought by his client but eventually the end of the global trade in plundered art.
Media coverage of the so-called “Quedlinburg case”—in which Korte tracked down medieval German manuscripts worth over $25 million in tiny Whitewright, Texas—led one British magazine to dub Korte “art’s Indiana Jones,” but Korte bridles at the description.
“I am not a bounty hunter,” he says. Spoken on the deck of Korte’s Silver Spring tract house, his statement seems so obvious that it’s a wonder people have managed to think otherwise. Successful bounty hunters do not live in developments that are found after you “veer right when you pass Wheaton Plaza.”
But in fact, Korte’s beard and slightly unkempt light brown hair do bring to mind Harrison Ford, minus the actor’s current touch of gray. And after all, the robust hero of Raiders of the Lost Ark was also supposed to be a young professor at a Midwestern state university. If it is impossible to picture Dr. Korte bull-whipping Nazis as they make off with precious gems, it is very easy to imagine him capturing the hearts of Big 10 coeds as they wait for office hours. Scholar is a part Korte could play far more easily than swashbuckler. (His heavy German accent, which changes “-ing” to “-ink,” certainly strengthens his academic feel.)
It’s clear in talking to Korte that the only adventure he finds sustenance in is watching the truth unfold.
“You can easily find examples of people spending years pursuing some lost treasures, and either going mad or broke over it,” he says. But his Holy Grail, Korte says, will never drive him mad because his inspiration comes from the method itself. He got involved initially because, “This was sort of an interesting research project. So when some of these things worked out, I was fairly cool. [Treasure hunters] all have this ambition to find the Big Treasure, to go down in history. When I had a couple of successes, it didn’t do that for me. It didn’t tell me, ‘Well, now you can retire.’”
Thrill-seekers can find their loot and call it a day. Korte’s prey is history itself, a subject that grows richer and more mysterious even as it recedes into the past.
The history Korte has spent his life immersed in dates back to the 1930s, though its antecedents are even older. Looting has always been a part of war. Out of malice and greed alike, cultural artifacts have been targets as often as silver and gold. Hitler’s Germany made an art of cultural plunder. Before the war even started, Jews, leftists, and museums owning art deemed “degenerate” found themselves victims. Works were confiscated. Some were forcibly sold abroad: A fire sale of modern art subsidized Nazi exhibits of patriotic German collections. Other pieces, aesthetically forbidden or simply lost in the bureaucratic shuffle, languished in the basements of the Third Reich.
When war broke out, Hitler’s plundering spread with the Wehrmacht. Many of the great art collectors and dealers of Europe were Jews. Some escaped, though few had the chance to make off with their art. Other collectors simply had the misfortune of owning a piece sought by the Third Reich. Or by a general with artistic pretensions. Or a major with an entrepreneurial eye.
The Fatherland’s art show never completed its promised thousand-year run, and its closing was a murky affair. When Stalin’s armies took Berlin, where most art treasures were held, they were in no mood to return bourgeois European property. Particularly not to Jews who couldn’t do anything about it anyway. Roosevelt and Churchill’s forces stopped farther West. Their intentions were better—though all armies harbor looters—but they had other things on their minds.
So pieces of Europe’s culture—Nazi victims’ property as well as Germany’s own inheritance—slipped away into the cold storage of the Cold War. Eventually, most people abandoned the hunt for stolen art, declaring the treasure part of what was lost in the war. But armed with a history degree and an appetite for archival research, Korte stayed on the case.
He is not the only one, but his focus on the big picture, in addition to certain specific ones, sets him apart. Korte wants to change the way the world looks at stolen art. Anyone can go after a single work, but piece by piece, shred by shred, Korte has built a body of knowledge that may eventually open the secretive world of art commerce to inspection. Stolen art hides itself not just in dingy basements but in disjointed paper trails, suppressed records, and lost title deeds. So it is no surprise that, when pressed, Korte shuns war stories of Indiana Jones-style epiphanies. Instead, he talks about archives.
Though his phone rings with questions about a multimillion-dollar painting last seen in war-torn Belgium or the resurfacing of an obscure lithograph, what really gets him animated are documents. They spill out of his office. They occupy, he says, half of his basement. They ring the carpet in his living room. People send him reams of paper as they look for a single tiny watercolor. When he serves subpoenas, he gets even more of them (“It’s like Christmas Day for me!”). And somewhere in the piles of data, the customs records, the shipping inventories, and the tax forms lie the clues to his historical mysteries. Archives contain the fingerprints of history.
The Meador family owned the hardware store in tiny Whitewright, Texas. When Joe Tom Meador died in 1980, along with the store and its inventory of tools and supplies he left his siblings a less conventional inheritance: medieval artifacts worth millions of dollars.
By the end of the decade, Joe’s brother Jack and sister Jane, saddled with debt, decided to put an illuminated manuscript from the cache on the market. This was no easy task. First of all, only a handful of dealers in the world handle transactions of this magnitude. There could be no quiet sale. Which, in this case, was a problem: The celebrated manuscript was the so-called “Samuhel Gospels,” a 9th-century rendering of the four Gospels that had belonged to an ancient church in Quedlinburg, in East Germany. It had been missing for 40 years.
Word did get out. At the time, Korte had been doing some research in connection with war-crimes cases. He had also been working with a few German state cultural institutions on some stolen-art investigations. His contacts in Germany asked him to look into the case “on the side.” Thus began an involvement that
has lasted more than half
“I tried to piece it together as best I could,” says Korte. He did a pretty miraculous job. As it turned out, Quedlinburg had been occupied by the U.S. from mid-April to July 1, 1945. By the time the Americans pulled back to make way for the Red Army, the gospels were gone. Without having been retained to look any further, Korte went first to the National Archives, where he found the name of the unit that had occupied the town. Next it was on to St. Louis, Mo., home of the Army’s personnel archives, where he found the names of the officers in the unit.
Then he made some calls. The gospels had been offered to a New York auction house; someone must have known something. Korte’s friend William Honan, a culture reporter for the New York Times, heard that the offer had come from Texas. He worked the margins of the art world until he finally found a name. Armed with Meador’s name, Korte found records showing he had been a first lieutenant guarding Quedlinburg. In fact, Korte found out, Meador had patrolled the cave where the gospels had been stored.
Korte went to Whitewright, “one of those God-forsaken North Texas towns.” He talked to the president of the one bank in town—right across the street from the Meador Hardware Store, and word got out that a researcher from Washington was snooping around. Things moved rapidly after that. The bank tried to accelerate the sale. The Meadors’ lawyers threatened to take the items out of the country. Korte got a restraining order. The law moved in.
Today, the gospels are back in Germany. Korte used obscure bits of paper to illuminate the trail of an equally obscure, but infinitely more valuable, ream of paper. There was no big payoff for Korte. For him, the truth would suffice.
“He has the fervor of a true believer,” says Constance Loewenthal, whose International Foundation for Art Research serves as a clearinghouse for records on stolen and missing art. Korte, acting on his own, was far more zealous than the German government in pursuing the manuscripts. Nervous about stirring up wartime memories or anxiety that a reunified Germany was out for revenge—the Berlin Wall fell while Korte was on Meador’s trail—Bonn moved quietly on the Quedlinburg case. In the end, the Germans even paid the Meadors off with a “finder’s fee.” The family got 10 percent, or around $3 million.
Korte was irate. He has spent years fighting Germany’s cultural bureaucracy over its willingness to pay off the Meadors. The Germans described him as a loose cannon. He could use even less pleasant words about them. But today, the FBI and the IRS are both preparing cases against the Meadors, one for trafficking in stolen art, another for estate-tax evasion.
In this case, the victim of the theft was part of the problem, but it made no difference to Korte. To him, looted culture is looted culture.
“Doing this for the German government, doing this for a Holocaust survivor, doing this for a French collector…from a historical point of view makes sense to me because they’re all part of these historical events,” he says.
The Quedlinburg case clearly demonstrated the seaminess of the art world. Both Christie’s and Sotheby’s knew about the Quedlinburg manuscripts. Neither notified law enforcement. One prominent art house allegedly even offered to sell them—although off the open market, since a lawsuit might be involved. “As soon as people see dollar signs, they become tricky and obnoxious,” Korte says, his accent growing stronger as he gets more animated. Despite their pretensions to learned research, the elite art houses still take a don’t ask/don’t tell attitude toward historical theft. In Korte’s eyes, they are not so different from the dealers in dark alleys and strange hotel rooms. It is a suspicion Korte’s subsequent experiences hunting looted art have done nothing to ease.
In spite of its enduring notoriety, Quedlinburg is not Korte’s favorite case. All things considered, he’d rather fight for the Nazis’ victims than for his German countrymen. Nonetheless, he says he feels that history’s holes—no matter where—need to be filled. To understand the depth of his feelings, one has to look back at Korte’s own life.
For a man whose work trades so heavily in documented evidence, a purely bureaucratic rendition of Korte’s own story would be remarkably flimsy. The data shows that he was born in 1953 in Augsburg, a Bavarian town about 40 miles northwest of Munich. Southern Germany was under American occupation at the time. Family pictures show Korte (who is too young to remember the occupation period) wearing a baseball cap, the gift of a distant cousin who was an American GI.
Korte went to Bavarian public schools. Religious instruction is mandatory in Germany, and students are given the option of taking either Catholic or Protestant classes; Korte’s parents chose Protestant. He dropped out of religion class at age 14, when attendance became optional. He spent a teenage year as an exchange student in Fort Wayne, Ind.
Rather than following most of his classmates on to college in Munich, Korte instead went to Berlin, where he attended the Free University. It was the early 1970s, the famous school’s most radical period. Korte himself dabbled in the political ferment of the time. He refused conscription, declaring himself a conscientious objector, and successfully won the right not to fight.
Korte ultimately went on to graduate school, initially studying political science and law. He soon switched from political science to modern European history. He gained German law and history degrees, and then came to America once again, where he completed his doctorate at Georgetown University. Combining law and history, he wrote his dissertation on the German legal system as it was re-established under American occupation after the war.
In Korte’s work, the intangible emotions of memory and history, of loss and grief, precede his archival excavations. They are, in fact, a large part of the reason anyone would care enough to sift through forests of paper in the hope of finding an old family watercolor. The same emotional motivations are evident in his life.
To be a German born in 1953 is to be a child of the war generation. Korte and his cohort did not witness, take part in, or fall victim to Nazi terror. For them, the war existed in the silences. Though he is a professional historian, Korte says he cannot remember his family discussing history even once. To the loved ones in young Korte’s universe it was a hostile force—a burden, a taboo, a psychological albatross.
“People often ask me why I do this,” Korte says. “And the answer—even though I’m not sure that it’s the answer—is because references to loss have been fairly constant in my family. Or, let’s say, the silent references to things that I never heard about were quite obvious. As far as history was concerned, it was more or less a vacuum.”
The reasons for the silence are easy to comprehend. Korte’s mother, who was part Jewish (“Her grandfather married a woman with partial Jewish ancestry,” Korte says), survived a Nazi labor camp. His father had been a Social Democrat in the eastern city of Dresden until Hitler outlawed the party. “After that,” says Korte, “he was just a businessman. I think he was halfway decent. I’ve never found any indication that he was a member of anything.” At the war’s end, his father left the burned, Soviet-occupied city as a refugee.
Korte’s parents—his father was a metallurgist—met among the ruins of a nation shattered by war, fascism, and defeat. “She was pulled off a train, one of those refugee trains. She was physically too weak to continue to travel. She was going to find relatives somewhere in the Rhineland, but it didn’t work out. They were also dead. My father was a refugee for other reasons. They were both in the same place, and like so many other people they got together. They got married. They had no particular family relationships or ties anywhere else.”
The other subject Korte’s parents never mentioned was religion. The couple raised him near Munich, though he says his refugee family “had absolutely nothing to do with Bavaria.” But while his parents’ dislocation echoed in their silence on their society’s grand myths and inflaming beliefs, they encouraged their son to explore whichever corners of the world sparked his intellectual curiosity.
While he may have immersed himself in the history of the Nazi era and the foundations of the postwar West German state, Korte had trouble even thinking of himself as a part of Germany’s historical tradition. “I have a deep sense of mistrust for the Germans politically. My conclusions, both from my own studies and from what I picked up from my own family and from people that I dealt with who experienced the time, was that when things go not so well…they try to find someone to blame, they turn toward the right.”
When he applied to be a conscientious objector, he offered all sorts of pacifistic explanations. But “my true reasons—which of course I couldn’t state—were really historical political reasons. I did not see myself to have the kind of relationship with Germany and the Germans that I wanted to be part of the German military. I didn’t want to have any particular job for the German government or any particular career in Germany.”
In many ways, Washington is a better place to study the immediate post-Nazi period than Bonn or Berlin. In the art world, the U.S. government was the leading restitution force, repatriating millions of stolen works to owners all over the world. Between the National Archives, various governmental agencies, and now the Holocaust Museum, the District has the greatest concentration of archival materials that a researcher like Korte needs. (The only thing Washington doesn’t have is major art dealers, but for Korte to get to them he usually needs a subpoena, anyway.)
But he says life in the United States—imperfect as it may be—also fills some emotional and philosophical needs dating back to his childhood. Despite not being a religious man, Korte says, “The other thing [besides the research opportunities] that I appreciate in a particular town like Washington is the subject of religion, where people in this country feel quite comfortable to celebrate their holidays and talk about their religious customs in a free manner that I never encountered in Germany.”
Korte is quick to point out that his Silver Spring neighborhood is largely Jewish. His wife—who is half Caribbean and half South American—is as far away as you can get from the typical German Fraulein. He begins to suggest that even his reasons for marrying her have their psychological antecedents in his aversion to the Germanic stereotype. But then he backs off, leaving it at: “I’ve set myself up with a personal life that doesn’t fit into any pattern at all. So any hopes of being part of the WASP country-club scene have been dashed.”
The downtown space Korte uses at Trans-Art is a run-down version of office life a few decades ago. The ceilings are high, but the furniture is old and clunky. Intimidating bound legal books burden the shelves, but a plastic sheet covers them. Korte sits uncomfortably, sipping a Diet Coke.
It’s as much study hall as office, which suits Korte, an eternal grad student at heart. After earning a Ph.D. at Georgetown, he stayed in Washington, engaging in a variety of research projects—with and without subsidy—covering a variety of German themes. “My wife says, ‘When are you going to get a real job?’” Korte says.
Korte himself is strangely vague about how exactly he makes money, but Lloyd Goldenberg, his partner at Trans-Art, says that Korte more or less breaks even on art sleuthing, asking clients to give him a small budget for research and travel. Korte has also earned money consulting for magazines, TV, and museums, from speaking fees, and from royalties on his German book on Quedlinburg, as well as from his work with Trans-Art on behalf of art buyers. Between his income and his wife’s—she is a social worker—the Kortes define modest living.
But there has been enough work that he hasn’t had to go out and get that real job: “I realized there were so many things to do, so many treasures to be found by doing research here. So I thought maybe I didn’t have to make up my mind and settle for a different career. Maybe I can be involved in various research projects, archival projects. Then came a couple war-crimes investigations, which began to make more sense in terms of my educational background, a combination between law and history.”
Korte has no formal arts training. Indeed, his gravitation toward investigating art thefts was as accidental as the sense of moral mission behind it was predictable. After years of free-lance research jobs, Korte had made himself into an expert on archival documents about postwar Germany. The task combines his three areas of expertise—legal details, historical research, and a superhuman ability to keep awake while poring over even the most obscure and irrelevant data.
When Korte first surfaced, seemingly out of nowhere, people were suspicious of his motives. “He was establishing himself in an area that’s quite unjustifiably fraught with mystery and suspicion,” explains Lynn Nicholas, whose book The Rape of Europa chronicled the fate of art treasures in World War II Europe. It was a suspicion that was not eased by Korte’s style of working alone and investigating before he was formally hired. “He’s a romantic figure and sort of a one-man band. He hooks up with people to achieve his ends,” says the International Foundation for Art Research’s Loewenthal. These days, Korte’s image is more pedantic than romantic: He’s “someone who knows his way around the archives,” says Nicholas. It is “a tremendous amount of work.”
Korte does fit one German caricature: Were he 30 years older and hard of hearing he could play the fastidious Teutonic scholar to the hilt. It is this fastidiousness that has allowed him to make sense of the shreds that come together to form a complicated history of wartime and postwar Germany. The work suits his temperament and abilities; the world of plundered art is one giant logical puzzle.
Unfortunately, it is a puzzle that is growing. Nazi Germany is the 12-year phenomenon Korte’s work has focused on. But the stolen-culture industry knows no historical limits. Even as the Cold War’s end has revived the hunt for treasures lost under the Nazis, it has also opened up new markets for plunder.
The Czech Republic is estimated to be losing 10 per cent of its cultural artifacts annually. Similar statistics are cited for other emerging eastern and central European countries where laws and access to money have loosened. These states face the same situation that faced colonial Asia and Africa. With or without violence, greed and malfeasance can decimate a cultural inheritance. And today’s theft—in the peaceful Czech Republic or in war-torn Yugoslavia, Ethiopia, or Cambodia—is tomorrow’s historical loss. The tricky task is sorting it all out.
According to Goldenberg, up to 90 percent of the art on the U.S. market is at risk. “That doesn’t mean everything has been stolen. But it’s at risk because the collector community has ignored the court cases over the past 30 years, and has tended not to undertake due diligence when buying something.” Car purchasers bear the burden of proving their new beauties aren’t hot; so do art purchasers. To do that, they need to see the records.
“The conventions of the art market have been, no investigation. Simply take an invoice, and even pay fair market value.” says Goldenberg. “The courts have expressly said that’s not enough.”
Doing enough—that is, scanning the records to make sure a painting is clean—is the service Trans-Art provides. It is a service marketed to a group Korte has clashed with in the past: art collectors. But it is easy to see how the two go hand in hand. Bringing the art market out of the darkness and into the fully bureaucratized light helps theft victims more than anyone else. “If the collector community in the U.S. undertakes due diligence, then stolen works will come to the surface,” says Goldenberg.
“We want to have a worldwide impact in the art market,” says Goldenberg. He claims that a slew of art-related court decisions has already forced the market to become more transparent, though some sources say that Trans-Art—which is, after all, a firm perpetually in search of new business—exaggerates its impact. “The thing that’s changed [for Korte],” says Goldenberg, “is that he doesn’t have to operate as a private eye-type figure. More and more records are computerized.” Korte and Goldenberg’s long-term goal is to set up a database of stolen art, which can then be checked against computerized auction-house and museum catalogs.
“I came to the conclusion that life and history are not that complicated,” says Korte. “You rarely if ever find these terribly sophisticated conspiracies. A lot of answers are fairly simple. People try to find something, try to hide something, try to take advantage of something or somebody. You have a couple of devious people involved, but few of them are brilliant to the point where they set something up that you could never penetrate. In the end it’s more sort of a letdown. [There are no] secret U-boat shipments from Nazi Germany to South American ports filled with treasures. No airplane shipments with Secret Service agents flying from Berlin to New York. The world is full of stories, but they have little to do with my line of work.”
Stolen art can hide for a long time in the cracks of history, or in the fault line of ethics in the art world. In a way, art theft is like kidnapping—that which is taken is nonfungible. Unlike silver, a painting cannot be melted down. A stolen Picasso, when it is sold, is sold as a Picasso. Unless most art looters are themselves collectors who maintain secret galleries (an unlikely prospect) the thief’s goal, like the kidnapper’s, is to preserve his heist before selling it—either back to its owners or to the highest bidder.
Until a piece comes back on the market, there’s little Korte can do. He has turned away families who have come to him with “find this picture” missions. Even when they have descriptions and prewar documentation, the chances of finding a long-missing work are so slim that he can’t charge them for it. But when a picture has reappeared—and many people who lost art during World War II spend all their spare time looking around—it’s a different story. The art-collecting world is small enough that when something appears on the market, the news gets around. “Good pieces of art that are stolen are like a cork in water. The longer they are down, the higher up they go once they’re free.”
There is one particularly easy solution to the missing-art puzzle. Korte puts it bluntly: “I like collectors with problem works to die. Their heirs don’t know anything about it. You’d be surprised how many stolen works are put up for auction.” That’s when contacts and access to ownership records come into play.
In the classic immigrant story, people come to America to escape the Old World’s historical burdens, to live life with a clean slate. Korte gives that tale a new twist. His Europe was a place of silence—about history, about religion, about ideology. America’s clean slate offers a chance not to escape history, but to escape the tragic silence about it.
Sometimes, by breaking the code of a work’s past, Korte breaks the silence.
“A widow in New York was going out to have a number of manuscripts and documents appraised because her husband had died,” Korte relates. The appraiser thought the German antiques she had brought him might be stolen, and she contacted New York’s Morgan Library, which contacted Korte. But the case was not so simple. “This woman, who had married this fellow in the ’60s, was a Hungarian Jew. She was an Auschwitz survivor, the only survivor of her family. So you can imagine my first response, which was that this is never going to work. But we were able to work it out. A writer at the New York Times was kind enough to write a story on the case, which solely focused on this woman as the true hero, who overcame her past and the arguments of her family to give it back, because it didn’t mean anything to her. She realized these documents represented a historical and cultural value, not a monetary value.”
From a safe distance in America, the woman did her small part to sew up the continent’s brutally frayed cultural fabric. In that sense, Korte’s migration to America (he remains a German citizen, but has raised his children as Americans) didn’t so much free him from history as free him to explore history. It is the immigrant who has the perspective to see the old world’s cultural whole, and to help patch even its most worn spots.
Perhaps because of this, Korte himself is clearly uncomfortable telling individual “war stories.” His versions are usually a strange mixture of bureaucratic jargon and tender appreciation of the emotions involved. Theft victims’ emotions inspire the work, but they can also make it heartbreaking. The recovery rate for stolen art remains very low—Korte has more sad stories than happy ones. Mostly, they involve searches Korte can’t complete.
Earlier this year, Korte received a letter from a man in San Francisco. The envelope contained a picture from the home of his grandmother, who had been a German-Jewish exile in Holland. “He sent me a photo of a fireplace. It looked like a nice place, with antique furniture. Over the fireplace, you can see two-and-three-fourths paintings. And he says the left one is a Van Gogh, a still life, a vase with flowers. To the right of that is a Picasso, a woman half nude. And to the right of this is a Sisley.” The grandson also sent an affidavit, in German, dating from the time the family moved to Holland, confirming the identity of the three paintings, and specifying that his family had purchased the painting from a Mr. Tanhauser, who was at the time a reputable art dealer in Munich.
“I would assume,” says Korte, “that if a wealthy German-Jewish family bought this painting from Mr. Tanhauser, then that was the way it was. So I shopped around, and the results were very disheartening.” Experts said the paintings in the picture could not be Van Goghs or Picassos. And Tanhauser’s archives didn’t hold any record of the family. Yet the paintings, in their absence, had become a mythic heirloom in the man’s family, an emblem of loss handed down from generation to generation. “I called them. They were totally at a loss. He said, ‘I cannot tell my grandmother.’”
The man’s file went back on the shelf, next to so many others. Korte’s research often documents tragedy. Sometimes even he must give in to the emotional numbness of a paper trail. “There are things out there on which I spend time. They are fantastic stories. Unfortunately, they haven’t worked out. They sit on my shelf; they have a file. And that’s where the business aspect is difficult: I can’t really ask them to give me $10,000 or $15,000 to pursue it. I’m not sure I’d feel comfortable to spend the money and come back empty-handed.” Korte’s most noble cases are also the longest shots. Not pursuing them compounds the pain. “For some people, it’s not actually to recover it. It is to know.”
Despite the factual basis implicit in knowing, the desire to know remains fundamentally an emotional need. And so—despite his knowledge of multilingual bureaucratese—loss remains the most prominent word in Willi Korte’s professional world. But at least some people are more hopeful now that the world is a more just place, even though many more are also more aware that it is a cruel place. European countries are reprinting their wartime loss catalogs, hoping modern technology and the new world order can find what history stole. Families and individuals, too, keep trying, filling Korte’s home with forests of papers, tributes to the memory of a shattered generation.
In Korte’s own house, those tributes constitute a form of art. Xeroxes decorate his living room. He says that if he had prewar paintings, people would get suspicious. Then he laughs. But though he’s lived in his house for four years and works, full-time, in the art world, there really are no paintings on the blank white walls.