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Beauty, Fire, & Memory: Lost Art of the Kaiser-Friedrich-Museum

Highlights from the former Berlin art collection destroyed by flames during World War II

During World War II, museums in Germany evacuated their most precious collections to fortified locations to protect them from bombs and other war hazards. In Berlin, these evacuation points were located in antiaircraft towers called Flaktürme, stations used by the Luftwaffe to defend against Allied air raids. On May 6, 1945, shortly after the Soviet entry into Berlin, fires broke out in one of these locations known as Flakturm Friedrichshain, which housed a number of objects from the former Kaiser-Friedrich-Museum (renamed the Bode Museum in 1956). More fires broke out between May 14 and 18, and by the time they were extinguished, the flames had incinerated three floors of paintings, sculptures, and decorative arts, destroying some of the most significant works from what was one of the most impressive and valuable art collections in Europe.

The Flakturm Friedrichshain fire surely ranks among the worst art disasters in history. More than 400 paintings and approximately 300 sculptures from the Berlin museum were lost, either missing due to looting at the time of the fires or presumed destroyed in the flames. Among the losses were many old master paintings, including works by Caravaggio, Tintoretto, Cranach, and Rubens, as well as several sculptures by Donatello and his followers. In the years since, some of the sculptures from the fire, although quite badly damaged, have resurfaced, but only one of the 434 lost paintings has ever been found.

The following images are a selection of prominent pieces that went missing or were destroyed in the flames at Flakturm Friedrichshain. The NGA Image Collections has prewar photographs and slides of more than 100 works from this vanished collection. Authentication comes from a catalog of the lost art, Dokumentation der Verluste, published by the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. For a more complete history of this event and the artworks in question, see The Lost Museum: The Berlin Painting and Sculpture Collections 70 Years after World War II, edited by Julien Chapuis and Stephan Kemperdick and published in 2015.

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