Private collector loses legal battle over Hitler’s horse statues

After a six-year legal battle, two bronze horses sculpted for Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) and owned by private collector Rainer Wolf will become property of the German government. Wolf has battled since 2015 to retain the sculptures, which he claimed were acquired lawfully.

Austrian sculptor Josef Thorak (1889-1952) created the horses, which measure over three metres tall, for the courtyard of the New Reich Chancellery. From 1944, the building became the military headquarters for the Nazi leader Hitler, who was central to the genocide of about six million Jews and millions of other victims. “There is not much left of the Reich Chancellery, which featured very prominently in Nazi propaganda,” said Stephan Klingen, an art historian at the Central Institute for Art History in Munich.

Built for Hitler by his chief architect Albert Speer (1905-1981), the chancellery was largely destroyed in World War II. Thorak’s horses were presumed long-lost until a West German art historian discovered the monumental sculptures in 1988 on a sports field at the Eberswalde Soviet base, near Berlin. They mysteriously disappeared the following year during the collapse of communism in Berlin, having been dismantled and smuggled out of East Germany disguised as scrap metal.

It was not until 2015, when famous art sleuth Arthur Brand began investigating the case, that the horses were finally tracked down. As part of a sensational raid of ten properties, Berlin police seized the horses amongst dozens of missing Nazi art from a warehouse in southern Germany. They later accused the 80-year-old Nazi memorabilia collector of harbouring stolen goods.

They came out of the sky,” commented Brand after the discovery of Hitler’s favourite bronze steeds. “Everybody thought they had been destroyed.”

While Wolf claimed he had purchased the horses lawfully from the Russian army, the judge ruled that the German government currently hold rightful ownership according to the German Reunification Treaty. Wolf will retain several other Nazi sculptures seized by police, including two male sculptures by Arno Breker (1900-1991) and two female nudes by Fritz Klimsch (1870-1960).

What will become of the infamous horses now? Gilbert Lupfer, an art historian at the Dresden State Art Collection, believes the sculptures should not be displayed in a museum as it would give them “too much honour.” Klingen, however, argued that “these horses belong in a museum, not in the cellar of a private collector. It is better that we can see them.”

Brand also supports the exhibition of such artworks in museum settings, concluding that “after 2,000 years people will still be talking about the Nazi era and these were Hitler’s favourite statues, they were underneath the window of his office. We have tried to destroy everything, that seemed appropriate at the time because we wanted to forget, but you can’t erase history. People need to see it and feel it to understand.”

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