In 1944, Hermann Göring paid £165,000 for the painting 'Woman Taken in Adultery' by the rarest of all Dutch painters, Jan Vermeer. The painting was found in Emma Göring's home in Austria. It was later proved to be a forgery by Hans van Meegeren. Van Meegeren was arrested by Dutch authorities; and charged in May 1945 with selling a Dutch national treasure and collaborating with the enemy. He subsequently confessed to having forged the painting, a less serious offense, and to prove it he painted another "Vermeer" in his prison cell. In all, van Meegeren is known to have produced 14 forgeries of works by Vermeer and Pieter de Hooch, several of which had been proclaimed masterpieces by scholars before it was learned they were fakes.  He was sentenced to one year in jail and died just nineteen days after his jail sentence began. Today, Göring's fake Vermeer is hidden away in the strong room of the Dutch State Collection in the Hague, never to be shown to the public or sold.

The Nazi Spoils of War

Finding the missing wealth of Europe has become an impossible task. In the months following Germany's surrender, millions of dollars in riches were uncovered, but nearly as many millions in gold, jewels, and priceless artefacts remained lost. Each time a new discovery was made, new fortune seekers joined in the quest. The carefully hidden Nazi plunder set off one of the greatest treasure hunts in history.

For years, from the safety of his Berghof fortress high in the Bavarian Alps, Adolf Hitler could look out across a Europe that belonged to him. From the Atlantic Ocean to the edge of Asia, from the fjords of Norway to the sands of Libya, his army ruled more than 300 million people. This was the foundation of the "Thousand-Year Reich," and he was incredibly proud of it. "Submit or be crushed like a bug underfoot" appears to have been his motto. He respected little, and virtually nothing and no one was safe. His conquering army left cities plundered and burnt to the ground.

If Adolf Hitler had one redeeming quality, it was his love of art. He was, himself, a frustrated artist, but he respected the works of others, especially the Old Masters.

The Führer at the Haus of German Art, Munich

On one spring day in 1940, while riding in an open staff car with selected Nazi officers, Hitler toured the City of Light.

Adolf Hitler, Albert Speer and Arno Breker touring conquered Paris on June 23, 1940.
In 1945, a few days before his suicide, the Führer stated that the day he was visiting Paris was the happiest day of his life...

In less than eight hours, he left Paris never to return, but he ordered his troops to confiscate the great art treasures in public and private collections and bring them back to the Third Reich. When the priceless artworks began arriving in Germany, he and Hermann Göring examined each new collection like children playing with new-found toys. Countless hundreds of millions of dollars in painting and sculpture eventually adorned the walls of the Nazi Museum in Munich.

But Hitler couldn't consign all of Germany's ill-gotten gains to the Nazi Museum. He needed storehouses, places he could safely tuck things away until the conclusion of the War. He sent his toadies to scour Germany and Austria for appropriate hiding places and finally settled on a 19th Century castle (among others) called Neuschwanstein high in the Bavarian Alps close to Austria.

Neuschwanstein was no ordinary castle. Vast and substantial, it was festooned with balconies and turrets, secret rooms and hidden passageways, dungeons and moats. The only way to get to it was to walk, and its complete remoteness no doubt played an important role in Hitler's scheme of things. It was the most beautiful castle in all of creation and a work of art itself. Hitler could not have found a more fitting place for the art he so admired. He believed no Allied army would dare lay waste to such a magnificent structure, and he was right.

The palace was the creation of Ludwig II, the "Mad King of Bavaria." Enchanted with the Lohengrin legend of the Knight of the Swan, Ludwig developed an obsession with German mythology. In 1864 when he succeeded to the throne at the age of eighteen, he became Richard Wagner's patron and decided to create a fairy-tale castle worthy in every way of the ancient German knights of Wagner's opera, Lohengrin. It took seventeen years to build. (Fifteen men are said to have worked non-stop for four and a half years just carving the king's bed!) This sort of thing was of limited appeal in Germany at the end of the 19th Century, and it wasn't long before Ludwig was seen as a man with no grasp of reality. In 1886, only three months after he moved in, he was declared unfit to rule.

It seems somehow appropriate that one madman's monument became a storehouse for the greed and fantasies of another. Ludwig's collection of cheap glass and plaster figures was dignified by some of the finest works in Europe. As World War II ended, American GI's sent to the castle to recover its treasures found the works of incomparable artists haphazardly grouped with those of little or no merit.

Neuschwanstein wasn't the only storehouse for the looted booty. With some of the greatest cultural centres of Europe in their grasp, many Nazi leaders stole for their own profit. Luftwaffe commander-in-chief, Hermann Göring, filled his fabulous estate at Karinhall with treasure---paintings, sculptures and tapestries---from occupied territories all over Europe. When the Russian army closed in, he loaded the lot onto a motor convoy and headed south for the safety of Bavaria, where it was eventually recovered by American forces.

Another Nazi treasure repository was an ancient, abandoned salt mine in Austria (Steinberg, established in 1319). In this perfectly controlled humidifier, an elaborate vault was created in which paintings were safely housed. Buried deep underground, all treasures were safe from Allied bombs and prying eyes. To this day, the salt mine remains. It is possible to enter each of the wood-clad rooms and conjure up images of rack upon rack filled with priceless art.

By the spring of 1945, Germany was defeated. Although Adolf Hitler had ordered the defence of Berlin to the death of the last man, with companies made up of old men and young boys, his henchmen were scurrying to save themselves. In the final days of the Nazi empire, every foot of land was paid for with a human life. Even as the allied armies sounded the death knoll in the marbled halls of the Third Reich, men like Martin Bormann, Adolf Eichmann, and Josef Mengele were plotting their escape routes. They weren't about to surrender or commit suicide as their leader had done. They had access to the plunder of Europe. They snatched what they could and ran for their lives.

It has been estimated that more than five hundred top-ranking Nazis disappeared from sight when Berlin fell. They took to the roads wearing civilian clothes and using any means of travel they could beg, borrow, or steal. The stolen treasures they carried were to be passports to a new life. But in their mad dash for freedom, they found they had precious little time to hide their ill-gotten wealth. By war's end, hundreds of millions of dollars in treasure were being stuffed into strongboxes and hidden in the most unlikely places all along the escape routes.

Art historians have often attempted to trace the plundering that occurred during the Nazi occupation of Europe, but an impossible jungle of documents subverted most of their attempts. One man, German-born art historian Walter Horn, worked with American intelligence immediately after the war. He solved two unusual cases in a relatively short time. One was the recovery of the crown jewels of the Holy Roman Empire, five of the most important pieces of which had disappeared. The other involved the disappearance of $2 million dollars in gold coins from the salt mines above Bannewitz.

The only thing that was known about the gold coins was that they were last in the hands of an SS Major, who was the right hand man of Martin Bormann, who was the right hand man of Adolf Hitler. The problem was to find Martin Bormann, a man who had disappeared from Berlin under fire.


It was known that Bormann and some of his men had left the bunker where Hitler was to die and had made a frantic race to freedom. They made their way across the Spree River and took refuge in an underground train station. Wearing civilian clothes, they mingled with frightened Berliners praying that their meager concrete roof would stand up under the bombardment of Russian guns besieging the city. As the onslaught died down, the men eventually reached the western edge of the city, where they took refuge in a broken ruin, hoping to last out the day.

"I went on the normal route of searching for a man," reported Walter Horn, "by trying to find the people who had seen him last to where his tracks disappeared or did not disappear."

The escapees weathered the night in an abandoned building, and the next day, they started out on a pre-arranged escape route south. Bormann's face was well-known to nearly every German in Europe, military and civilian, but in the chaos surrounding the war's end, he managed to slip out of Berlin and make his way to the Alps, eluding all pursuit.

"After about two weeks in the Austrian mountains eluding a search in the alpine huts and a search in sawmills all the way down from high alps to the valley of Saltzburg," said Horn, "I came to the conclusion that he was lost. I had no other choice than to approach the wife of the SS Major." After conversing with her, Horn left her alone for three days and then saw her again. "She declared, `I'm happy to report that the coins are in the hands of the Prince Archbishop of Salzburg.' I said, `This is fine. My mission is accomplished.'"

Were it not for the dedication of Walter Horn, the coins might have been lost forever. As it was, other pieces of treasure were not found and remain lost to this day. One beautiful collection of historic treasure still lost is the fabulous gold jewelry of Queen Helen's found in the excavated ruins of the ancient city of Troy by the German archaeologist, Heinrich Schliemann. Numbering over 9,000 intricately sculpted pieces, it disappeared from the Berlin Museum, as the Russian Army stormed into town. The Russians didn't find it when they captured the building, and it is feared that it was removed for safekeeping by a member of the Museum...a member who died in the war before being able to reveal the treasure's hidden location. [Note: this was reportedly found several years ago during renovation of a basement room in a museum in Moscow after Glasnost.] Still other treasure has become the subject of life and death struggles.

Most of the missing wealth of Europe is now presumed to be in the form of gold bullion, silver, and jewels. When the Nazi hierarchy took flight, they reasoned that if they were caught, they might lie their way out of long prison sentences, but not if they were caught with treasure. They hid great fortunes in haste along their escape routes. Austria was a favorite escape route, and the beckoning alpine lakes a favorite hiding place. In one lake near Strasburg, gold bars and hundreds of thousands of English pounds were recovered in 1957. The treasure was in strong boxes and chests and submerged in the icy blackness of a stone quarry.

Months later, two men died trying to discover if any further treasure remained. No one really knows what really happened. The men just vanished, and rumors abound that the underground Nazi movement, Odessa, was involved. Since Odessa helped many a Nazi escape the clutches of the law after the war, perhaps someone was there to make sure no more treasure would be found.

In spite of the lake's ominous history, the treasure search still continues. It is possible that any gold remaining in that particular lake was removed years ago when its guardian felt others closing in, but there are many such lakes and many secret bank accounts.

Serious investigators don't dismiss the assumption that there are still men in hiding who would like to see Hitler's nightmare reborn. Great treasure would have to be close at hand to once again unleash the dogs of war, and this treasure would need to be easily retrieved. That prospect alone has driven men to continue the hunt. As long as they believe it to be buried along the escape routes, fortune seekers will not give up the quest. The Austrian government tries to discourage treasure hunters, but the lure of Nazi gold is powerful.

Lake Como is an example. Legend insists that SS Sturmbannführer Otto Skorzeny amassed a sizeable fortune (including much of Benito Mussolini's missing hord) during the war. Skorzeny, a daring commander, led a commando force to rescue the Italian dictator in September, 1943, after Mussolini had been overthrown and imprisoned in the wake of the Allied invasion of Italy. Mussolini was held prisoner in a hotel on top of the Gran Sasso d'Italia, the highest mountain range in the Abruzzi Apennines. By making a glider assault on the place, Skorzeny and his men were able to overpower Mussolini's guards and fly the dictator out to safety in a Storch light aircraft.

Some years later, there were several well-publicized accounts by men who had served under Skorzeny's command alleging that they had been present when bullion was hidden in Lake Como. There have been many attempts to find it, but all have failed. Some scholars believe that Skorzeny, who was brought before an American war crimes tribunal at Dachau and acquitted, clandestinely recovered the hidden horde before moving to South America, where he established a prosperous cement business.

The Lünersee is another example of an alpine lake used for hiding ill-gotten gains. It lies nestled near the small Austrian town of Brand, several hundred miles southwest of Salzburg. Sometime in the late spring of 1945, four boxes filled with jewelry, rare stamps, and gold bars were allegedly hidden in a carefully concealed spot somewhere along its rocky shores. The treasure came straight from the gates of Hell...Dachau.

The horrors associated with Dachau are indescribable. It was a place used primarily as a crematorium and not as a prison. Practically everyone not German who entered through its gates was destroyed. And in true Nazi fashion, anything of value was confiscated. Eyeglasses, clothing, jewelry, even the metal fillings in the teeth were torn from the helpless victims for Nazi use. The treasure accumulated from the prisoners brought to Dachau for execution or cremation was staggering.

With the surrender of Germany only a matter of time, the Commandant of Dachau ordered the wealth removed. He had it loaded into four large boxes, judged to be ammunition boxes by their size, and smuggled out of the camp under cover of darkness.

The route allegedly went from the outskirts of Munich into Austria through the Arlberg Pass toward the small town of Brand. Near Brand was a pristine mountain lake called the Lünersee. This lake, located on the Swiss border, was the destination.

After the War, an Austrian physician named Wilhelm Gross treated imprisoned Nazi war criminals. One of the criminals who had been condemned to death was an SS officer who had been at Dachau. This man told Doctor Gross the amazing story of the buried wealth. In 1952, Doctor Gross shared the story with Doctor Edward Greger, who was then a U.S. Army intelligence officer stationed in Austria. Doctor Gross told Greger that it started at the concentration camp when the Commandant of Dachau and three of his assistants loaded the treasure into four boxes and left. The informant claimed to be one of the four SS officers who conspired to smuggle this treasure out of Dachau.

The Allied armies had not yet reached the isolated region around the Lünersee and the Nazis believed their loot would be safe there. They planned to escape across the Swiss border after burying the treasure and return years later when they thought it would be safe to uncover the horde.

It took the men several days to reach the Lünersee. They practiced covert operations as they traveled, using all the back roads and traveling early in the morning or late in the evening to avoid possible patrols, friendly or otherwise. When they finally arrived at the Lünersee, the only structure in the area was a small hut. They sighted on a brook across the lake and buried the treasure boxes exactly halfway between the hut and the lake in line with the brook. They then said their farewells and went their separate ways, planning to return when the timing was right.

Three of them left and headed into Switzerland. The fourth person went back down into the valley to return to his family. According to the story Doctor Gross told Edward Greger, this fourth person was captured, tried for his crimes, and sentenced to die. While awaiting execution, he told his secret. His companions were never seen again.

Edward Greger believed the story. He agreed to help Doctor Gross search for the treasure, but before they could mount an expedition, Doctor Gross mysteriously disappeared.

Four years passed and in 1956, a dam was constructed on the Lünersee. The resulting increase in the lake's level submerged the treasure boxes under seventy-five feet of water. and that's how things remained until the summer of 1990. That summer, thirty-four years later, enough water was let out of the dam to return the lake to its original depth. Coupled with a severe drought, the water level was at an all-time low. Armed with information culled from the personal papers of the missing Doctor Gross, Edward Greger returned to the Lünersee.

Edward Greger and an associate pinpointed the treasure's location by using coordinates from the map given him by Doctor Gross, but in spite of a thorough search with metal detectors, he was unable to find any sign of the treasure. His failure raises several interesting questions. The most obvious is: did the remaining three SS officers return and dig it out? If it is still in the Lünersee, where is it? Or, more importantly, did the treasure ever really exist? Was Doctor Gross's story just that...a story?

Edward Greger feels that the three remaining officers did not dig it up. By the time it would have been safe to return, the treasure would have been submerged. Furthermore, documents brought to light at a 1946 war crimes trail indicate that such a treasure really did exist. In Volume I of the Report of the Atrocities Committee at the Dachau Concentration Camp, Robert W. Kesting, a federal employee, discovered some evidence of the treasure in the archives, specifically an interrogation statement from a man named Josef Jarolin.

Josef Jarolin was tried, convicted, and executed for atrocities he committed while he was a sub-commandant of Dachau. According to his testimony and statements from four other sources, the head commandant had been involved in a conspiracy to smuggle the treasure from inside the camp to a place of safety on the outside. This officer's name was Fredrick Viter.

One witness, according to Robert Kesting, claimed that he saw Viter have the trucks loaded...being loaded with valuables out of the cash storage area. According to some other testimony, Viter was seen leaving the camp in those vehicles. Later on, he was also seen by other SS personnel heading towards the Swiss border. Also, Jarolin testified that other camp personnel had assisted in burying this treasure and that approximately $5 million in gold Reichmarks was taken in valuables.

Josef Jarolin went to his grave never revealing any more about the treasure. Edward Greger believes that Jarolin was one of the four men who buried the boxes in the Lünersee and was perhaps Doctor Gross's mysterious informant.

If this treasure still exists in the Lünersee, it is estimated to be worth more than $50 million dollars at today's prices. It is also once again under water. Edward Greger plans to return when the lake level is once again low enough to search along the shoreline. If found, he would like the treasure's proceeds used to provide medical care for needy individuals. It would be a fitting use of the wealth stolen under such grim circumstances.

Not all of the priceless art treasures were hoarded by the fleeing Germans. Another massive haul of Nazi treasure was discovered at the end of the war by American forces in a disused mine shaft at Quedlinburg, a few miles south of Magdeburg in eastern Germany. It included medieval works of art, including gold and silver crucifixes, rock crystal flasks, a beautiful silver recepticle for keeping and displaying sacred relics called a reliquary which was inlaid with precious stones and enamels, a liturgical ivory comb, various priceless gifts belonging to the warlords who ruled the old states of Germany in the 9th and 10th Centuries, and---perhaps the most priceless of all---a beautifully illustrated 9th Century version of the four gospels in a gold and silver binding encrusted with gold and jewels.

The treasure was discovered by a U. S. Army lieutenant named Joe T. Meador, who was assigned to one of three teams searching for weapons, radio transmitters and other equipment that might be put to use by Nazi resistance fighters. (One of his men accidentally stumbled into the mine shaft while on patrol.) Meader was given the task of guarding it until it could be properly catalogued and identified. Meader, however, had other ideas. He quietly removed the treasure, piece by piece, and nonchalantly mailed them home.

The Army launched an inquiry on the missing horde, but this ended in 1949 when Quedlinburg became part of East Germany. Meanwhile, Meador returned to his hometown of Whitewright, Texas, and operated a hardware store. When he died in 1980 at the age of sixty-four, rumours circulated among dealers in medieval art all over the world that ‘something remarkable' would soon appear on the market. Sure enough, in 1990, a private West German organization announced that it had recovered one of the missing artworks---the four gospels---after paying a "finder's fee" of $3 million to a lawyer acting for the estate of a former American soldier, a Texan. They also recovered another priceless item of the treasure horde---a 1513 manuscript valued at $500,000.

Further investigation revealed that the town of Whitewright was the hiding place of all the missing Quedlinburg treasure. The items were widely dispersed...found in offices at Meador's hardware store, in private homes, and in safe-deposit boxes. Two-thirds of the treasure was recovered; all in perfect condition. But one-third is still missing. and the hunt continues.

Today, Florence, Italy, is considered the centre for the continuing search of Nazi plunder stolen from Europe. It is estimated that as much as one third of Italy's stolen treasures remains hidden, most of it still thought to be in Germany. One of the hardest tasks for the art detectives anywhere is rooting out the fake masterpieces that began turning up after the War. Museums anxious to restore their collections were among many who fell victims to the swindles perpetrated in the name of art. The flood of copies has made it even harder to trace the fate of the originals.

The clues are scarce and after so many years, almost non-existent, but the search continues. Perhaps the day will come when the destruction of the past can finally be cast aside. All the treasure may never be found, but with the dulling of time, maybe people can forget.

How the CIA Stole Jewish Art Treasures Looted by the Nazis

By all accounts James Kronthal had the makings of a ranking CIA official. He had attended New York's prestigious Lincoln School with Nelson Rockefeller. At Yale, he rejected the advice of his father that he major in business and studied art history instead. He joined the rowing crew and Phi Beta Kappa. Upon earning his degree in 1934, he found employment at the prestigious Frankfurt, Germany banking house of Speyer & Co. (the Kronthal's were blood relations of the Speyer family). Shortly thereafter, he established a network of middlemen to market artwork confiscated by the Nazis from Jewish collections. Kronthal was an eager Quisling, an advisor to Himmler and Göbbels. In fact, their intervention once pried him loose from the Gestapo after he was snared on charges of pedophilia.

His favors to the Nazi Party enriched him, but he was increasingly troubled by Nazi brutality and returned to the States to pursue a graduate degree at Harvard. There he befriended James Jesus Angleton, then a Law School freshman, and a decade later the CIA's highest ranking Soviet specialist. After the raid on Pearl Harbor, Kronthal and Angleton offered themselves to the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). Kronthal was assigned to Switzerland's Berne Station under Allen Dulles, whose family, like the Speyers, had conducted business with the Nazis as Hitler ascended to power.

After the war Kronthal was assigned to the recovery of art plundered by the Nazis. Millions of paintings and antiques had disappeared. Some of these had made their way to Switzerland and flooded the galleries, sold to finance the rearmament of Germany in the 1930s - with Kronthal's assistance - and the postwar ambitions of leading Nazis. By 1942 galleries of Zurich, Madrid, Laussanne, New York and elsewhere were glutted with plundered artwork, sold at a fraction of their true worth.

Sol Chaneles, former chairman of the Department of Criminal Justice at Rutgers University, notes that "countless objects can probably be found today in the homes of friends and relatives of Nazi and Nazi authorized art dealers where they were stored 'temporarily.' But the Nazis kept precise, detailed records of their pillage. Incomplete though they are, the records that survive list some 12 million individual items." A postwar inventory by the U.S. Army's Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Division (MFA&A) counted 16 million pieces, but to date a full inventory has not been attempted.

Following the Anschluss  - Germany's annexation of Austria on March 13, 1938 - Hitler oversaw the wholesale confiscation of Jewish property, including the great art collections of barons Louis and Alphonse de Rothschild, the priceless paintings and rare volumes of the library belonging to Baron Butmann, and many more. Hitler's invasion of Czechoslovakia in May 1939 involved the seizure not only of Jewish-owned art, but also the library of Prague University, the holdings of the Czech National Museum, the palaces of the Schwartzenbergs and Collerdos, and the Lobkowicz collections, which included Flemish painter Breughel's masterpiece, Hay Harvest. The best of this loot was shipped to Germany, as were the Habsburg crown regalia from Vienna and the Bohemian crown jewels from Prague.

Raping nations of the cultural heritage not only demoralized conquered states - the reflected glory of pillaged landmarks of civilization lent the Third Reich an aura of grandeur. Having promised the Austrian city of Linz, where he had attended school, Hitler demonstrated in the Polish campaign of 1939 how highly the acquisition of precious art rated in his strategic military operations. SS units accompanying the invading Nazi troops, provided with detailed information about the location of dozens of works of art, captured the famous altar by Veit Stoss in Cracow, relocated by the Nazis to Berlin, and the legendary Czartoryski collections of coins and relics, Limoges enamels, and engravings by 15th-century artist Albrecht Dürer.

An unknown number of invaluable European artifacts have been stored in American bank and Treasury Department vaults since the war, classified a "national security" secret by the CIA. Only 200,000 of the items on the MFA&A inventory have been returned as restitution, primarily to wealthy German families and countries crushed by the Nazis.  The CIA kept its share. A rare exception were the Hungarian crown jewels, found in a German salt mine as WW II wound down, returned in 1978 by order of President Jimmy Carter.

Kronthal succeeded Allen Dulles as head of the Berne station in 1947 under the newly formed CIA, an extremely powerful position that put him in charge of most covert operations in Western Europe. (In the immediate postwar period, most of the CIA's recruits were staunch Nazis  among them Otto Skorzeny, Martin Bormann, Josef Mengele and Klaus Barbie. In the moral vacuum of cold war realpolitik, they were employed in the importation of drugs, the instigation of foreign coups, the arming of terrorists and death squad training.) Kronthal was given nearly complete authority in the handling of the plundered cultural wealth of Europe.

Unfortunately, Kronthal's pedophiliac urgings rendered him vulnerable to blackmail by the Soviet NKVD intelligence service under Lavrenti Beria, and comprehensive information on CIA activities in Europe soon flowed from Berne to Moscow Center. In 1952 Kronthal returned to Washington to assist in the reorganization of the Agency. A year later he met secretly with his former Berne handler, Allen Dulles, the newly appointed Director of Central Intelligence. The subject of discussion is not known. The next day, Kronthal's housekeeper entered his bedroom to find him dead, an apparent suicide.

"The death was quickly hushed up," according to late CIA operative William Corson. The Washington police force was called in "to cover up what the CIA wanted hidden.... A chemical analysis failed to determine the cause of death or the contents of the vial found next to Kronthal's body."

Nazi Art Deal Forces Dutch to Face Guilt

The Rembrandts, van Dycks, Ruysdaels and Cranachs continue to draw visitors to Holland's greatest museums and galleries.

But not for much longer. Under a landmark ruling by the Dutch government, more than 200 pieces, including scores of major masterpieces tracked down by a team of top art detectives, will be stripped from cultural institutions and returned to the family of Jacques Goudstikker, a Jewish collector and dealer who died during the Second World War.

The story of one of Europe's biggest collections of 16th and 17th-century paintings is not just about art. It is about modern Holland's painful reconciliation of a war history that is less honourable than usually thought. A new book claiming Dutch people had known about mass deportation and extermination of Jews has provoked a bitter controversy. 'There was some resistance [to the German occupation] of course, and many can be justly proud of what they did,' said Ies Vuysje, the author. 'But most people just got on with their lives and did nothing, despite knowing what was going on.'

Dutch commentators regard the judgment as part of a process of facing up to the betrayals and misdeeds of the past. When the Germans invaded Holland, Goudstikker, who lived in central Amsterdam, was forced to sell his collection of 1,500 works to the Nazi high command for a derisory sum. About half went to Hermann Göring, head of the Luftwaffe, who wanted to create a private museum packed with the best European art. His purchases, hidden in salt mines near Hitler's 'Eagle's Nest' mountain hideout, were found in 1945 by an American intelligence unit and returned to Holland.

When Goudstikker's widow tried to reclaim them, the Dutch state created insurmountable bureaucratic barriers. 'The state and the directors of the art museum simply did not want to hand over the works, whatever the moral right or wrong,' said Lucette Ter Borg, a journalist and author who has spent a decade researching the case. 'Correspondence between the directors of galleries at the time shows that they knew they were doing something wrong but did not care.'

Many Jews who returned to Holland after the war confronted similar problems - a fact little recognised in a country proud of the way some citizens stood up for their Jewish compatriots. They were unable to reclaim their homes or the property of family members who died in Nazi concentration camps. 'For a long time there was a tendency to prettify the image of Holland under the Germans, but the image of a country that resisted unanimously has been steadily destroyed by recent research,' said Bas Heijne, a respected political columnist. 'The Goudstikker decision is a sort of closure. It brings both guilt and relief from a belated sense of shame.'

Heijne said the experience of Jews in Holland during the war - only one in 10 survived, one of the highest death rates in Europe, and Dutch police assisted with Nazi-led round-ups - reverberates with the heated debate over immigration in the country today. Right-wing parties are riding a wave of anger and distrust directed at a large immigrant community and, since the murder by a young Islamic radical of controversial filmmaker Theo van Gogh 18 months ago, at Muslims. 'Even the language is the same,' Heijne said. 'People talk about collaboration or appeasement, of deportations. The memory of the war has a resonance throughout society and politics today.'

According to lawyers and art detectives hunting the Goudstikker collection - he listed all the works in a small notebook found after his death in an accident on the ship that carried him from Holland and persecution - dozens of works in Russia and South America are unlikely to be returned. Dick Schonis, the Amsterdam lawyer acting for Goudstikker heirs, said many are in private hands, possibly in Britain, and few European museums are keen to hand over such treasures. Recently, after resisting fiercely, a museum in Vienna was forced to return major works by Gustav Klimt, worth £60m, to the family of an Austrian Jew who fled during the war.

The loss to Holland is less traumatic, though one small museum in Maastricht is losing a significant part of its collection. Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum will hand over a prime attraction - a 1649 landscape by Salomon van Ruysdael - and 14 other works. Peter Sigmund, director of collections, played down the loss, saying that more important issues were at stake. 'Times have changed. There is a new generation which looks at things in a different light. There is a judgment and the works should be returned. It is as if they have been here just as a temporary loan.'