Napoleon, Hitler, Vatican: All collectors – opinion


We’ve all been collectors at one time or another, whether it’s baseball cards, dolls, stamps, coins, art, etc. It was nice to complete a set or get a rare item. Collecting has given us selective trivial knowledge to impress others. It also did us good to post, share and inform friends and strangers.

Our collections were built slowly, by buying or exchanging. Sometimes we might receive a gift or heirloom that would start or significantly increase our collection. Sometimes we would build our collections by being explorers, archaeologists, or researchers in yard sales, flea markets, or thrift stores.

Each element would have a history and a provenance. Provenance – the chronology of ownership, custody or location of an historic object – is of the utmost importance when discussing valuables.

In addition to helping establish the authorship and authenticity of an object, provenance for museums and the art trade has become increasingly important in establishing the moral and legal validity of a chain of custody. . Especially when it comes to art, artefacts, manuscripts or any object of historical, cultural, religious or monetary value “looted”.

Napoleon, Hitler and the Vatican were three of the most infamous collectors in history.


Napoleon was Emperor from 1804 to 1815. According to the New York Times (June 9) “When Napoleon Bonaparte led his army across the Alps, he ordered the Italian states he had conquered to hand over works of art that made the pride of the peninsula… He brought back enough booty from his conquests to fill what will soon become the Louvre museum.

Cynthia Saltzman, author of Plunder, A History of Napoleon’s Art Thefts, noted in the same Times article that Napoleon “stole around 600 paintings and sculptures from Italy alone.” This is nothing compared to Hitler and the Vatican.


Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party Collecting Madness did not begin in earnest until the beginning of World War II and lasted until Victory Day (1939-1945). The magnitude of this theft is only surpassed by their murder, destruction and inhumanity.

The Monuments Men, curators of the army, worked to recover this art during the last days of the war. Smithsonian Magazine (February 7, 2014) states: “When [George] Stout made it happen [an ancient salt mine high in the Austrian Alps] on May 21, 1945, shortly after the end of hostilities, he recounts its content on the basis of the Nazi archives: 6,577 paintings, 2,300 drawings or watercolors, 954 prints, 137 pieces of sculpture, 129 pieces of arms and armor, 79 baskets of objects, 484 boxes of objects considered as archives, 78 pieces of furniture, 122 tapestries, 1,200 to 1,700 boxes apparently books or similar, and 283 boxes with completely unknown contents.

The numbers are staggering. The struggle to return it to its rightful owners and heirs continues to this day. Here, provenance played an important role, leading to the return of objects to the legitimate heirs.

The Vatican.

Judaic treasures have interested many conquerors for two millennia. According to Dr. Michael A. Calvo: “These thefts include the temple candelabras donated to Pope Innocent III by Baldwin I after the sack of Constantinople and the massacre of the Orthodox Christian population; shofars and temple utensils; clothing of the High Priest; the Tzitz (crown); the Nezer (blade); a gold plaque with the words Kodesh le-YHWH (“Dedicated to the Lord”); prayer books; documents; writings; sacred objects; cultural objects; and many other works of art, books and manuscripts that the Vatican and other churches have appropriated and placed in their own reserves, libraries and museums. [Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, The Holy See and Israel: The Historic Fight Against the Jews and Their State]

The 2008 775-page book, The Hebrew Manuscripts in the Vatican Library, Città del Vatano Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticano, is a simple catalog of documents with location information and item descriptions of “over 600 items” . There are no high resolution scans of documents or even a snapshot. There is no given provenance of any acquisition.

It is important to return all looted Judaica artwork, texts and artifacts. From a Jewish perspective, these looted objects are part of Jewish identity, history and holy religious practices. Many original Hebrew texts contain information about Judaism as to how it is practiced today, while sacred religious artifacts and art objects represent Jewish community life through the ages.

Imagine the reception that returned items would receive in Israel, and its implications for scholarships. Israel is very experienced in collecting, preserving, exhibiting and sharing. All one has to do, for example, is witness the Israel Museum’s clear images of the Dead Sea Scrolls, as well as see how they have been shared online for academics and the public. The Vatican archives do not display their Judaica collection at all.

In a speech given by Pope John Paul II in a synagogue in Rome (English text published by the Vatican, The New York Times, April 14, 1986), he declared that the Jews “are our beloved brethren, and d ‘in a way you could say that you are our older brothers. Jews and Christians are the depositaries and witnesses of an ethics marked by the Ten Commandments, in the observance of which man finds his truth and his freedom.

Powerful words and feelings.

Hasn’t the current pandemic shown how fragile we humans are? Now is the perfect time for the Vatican to put Pope John Paul II’s words into action. Not only “Do not steal” is the eighth commandment of what Pope John Paul II says Jews and Christians are both “the custodians of and witnesses to,” but also, the Jews are their “elder brothers. beloved ”. So why not return the stolen Jewish treasures from the Jews now?

There is a precedent: “Pope Paul VI initiated a process of returning the relics to the Orthodox Church. In 1965, the relics of Saint Titus, which had been taken to Venice in 1669, were returned to Crete. In 2000, Pope John Paul II returned the relics of Saint Gregory the Illuminator to the Armenian Orthodox Church. In 2004, the relics of Saint Gregory the Theologian and Saint John Chrysostom were returned to Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople. In 2004, the same Pope returned the Virgin of Kazan to the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow. Do Jews have less right to their inheritance than others? [Dr. Michael A. Calvo, Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies (paper #2,127, 27 August 2021) Jewish News Syndicate, Israel and the Holy See.]

The Vatican can certainly do the “Christian thing” and return what has unfortunately been acquired by plunder to their rightful heirs, the State of Israel, the rightful representative of the world Jewish community. It is now.

The writer is a former New York advertising agency and marketing executive. Professor at Rutgers University School of Communication & Information and consultant. He made his aliya in 2015 and lives in Ashkelon.

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