Two monumental bronze equine sculptures by Josef Thorak that once guarded Hitler’s Reich Chancellery in Berlin have been found in a warehouse in the southwestern German spa town of Bad Durkheim. The raid was one of 10 executed at the same time around the country. Art squad police raided properties in Berlin, Bavaria, North Rhine-Westphalia and Schleswig-Holstein as well as part of an extensive multi-year investigation of eight men suspected of being a ring of illegal art dealers.
The raids also recovered three massive granite reliefs by Arno Breker called Waechter (“Guardians”), Raecher (“Avengers”) and Kameraden (“Comrades”) that were meant to adorn the Reich Chancellery but were never installed, and two sculptures of women, Galatea and Olympia, by Fritz Klimsch that once adorned the garden behind the Reich Chancellery. Berlin police spokesman Michael Gassen says they confiscated 100 tons of art in the raids. Thorak’s Walking Horses alone are 16 feet high and 33 feet long and weigh two tons each.
These sculptures survived the war and the destruction of the Chancellery building because they were squirreled away for their protection. When Berlin became the target of ever more frequent bombings in 1943, the horses were moved from their positions on either side of the Reich Chancellery staircase to the sculpture factory in Wriezen, a town 20 kilometers (12 miles) east of Berlin. The Wriezen complex was used to produce large-scale Nazi sculptures and architectural features using a workforce of skilled and unskilled Italian and French prisoners of war. It also had storage sheds containing art treasures looted from Nazi-occupied territories.
The town was occupied by Soviet troops in 1945 and became part of the German Democratic Republic (GDR). The next time the statues were seen, it was 1950 and they were on the sports field of a Red Army barracks in the town of Eberswalde (Brandenburg). Thorak’s Walking Horses spent 38 years on the field and they saw some rough treatment. Damaged by bullet holes, the horses were painted over in gold. At some point their tales broke off and were reattached crudely.
In March of 1988, art historian Magdalena Busshart found the horses on the sports field and identified them as Thorak’s monumental bronzes. In January of 1989 Busshart published an article about the horses in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, a Frankfurt daily newspaper. A few weeks later, a reader told her that the horses were gone. Experts believe they were sold by the GDR government which in 1989 was facing its imminent demise and was in dire need of hard currency. They disappeared from the record at that point only to reappear again in mysterious online sales postings.
The investigation began in 2013 when an informant told the Berlin police that someone was attempting to sell the pair of horses online. Last year, Arthur Brand, who runs a private firm that researches the ownership history of artworks with a specialty in tracing art the Nazis stole from Jews, saw photographs of the horses in a sale offer seeking 8 million euros ($8.9 million) for the pair. At first he thought the pictures had to be fakes, that the horses were long gone, destroyed in the death throes of the GDR. After following the trail through German archives, old newsreels, his contacts in the Russian military and even satellite images, Brand came to believe the photographs showed the genuine article. In late 2014, Brand relayed his information to the Berlin police.
One of the eight suspects claims he is the legitimate owner of the tons of art in the Bad Duerkheim warehouse. According to his attorney, Andreas Hiemsch, the man lawfully acquired the art from the Red Army more than 25 years ago and even offered to loan some of them to museums. Sorting out legal ownership is going to be a challenge. The Red Army/GDR sale may be hard to document; the Federal Republic of Germany has a claim as the successor of the GDR; the artists’ heirs might have a viable ownership claim. It could be years before it’s all sorted.