Napoleon, Hitler, Vatican: All collectors – opinion


We’ve all been collectors before, whether it’s baseball cards, dolls, stamps, coins, art, etc. It felt good to complete a set or to acquire a rare item. Gathering gave us selective trivia knowledge to impress others. It also made us feel good about showing, sharing and informing friends and strangers alike.

Our collections have been built up slowly, through purchase or trade. Sometimes we receive a gift or inheritance that would begin or greatly expand our collection. Sometimes we built up our collections by being explorers, archaeologists or seekers at flea markets, flea markets or second-hand shops.

Every object would have a history and origin. Provenance – the chronology of ownership, custody, or location of a historical object – is of the utmost importance when it comes to valuable items.

In addition to proving the authorship and authenticity of an object, the provenance is becoming increasingly important for museums and the art trade in order to prove the moral and legal validity of a product chain. Especially when it comes to “stolen” art, artifacts, manuscripts or anything of historical, cultural, religious or monetary value.

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


Napoleon was emperor from 1804-1815. According to The New York Times (June 9), “When Napoleon Bonaparte led his army across the Alps, he ordered the Italian states he conquered to hand over works of art that were the pride of the peninsula … He brought enough booty from his conquests to fill them in what was soon to become the Louvre Museum. “

Cynthia Saltzman, the author of Plunder, a story of Napoleon’s art theft, noted in the same Times article that Napoleon “stole about 600 paintings and sculptures in Italy alone.” That pales in comparison to Hitler and the Vatican.


Adolf Hitler and the NSDAP collecting frenzy only began in earnest at the beginning of the Second World War and lasted until VE Day (1939-1945). The scale of this theft is only exceeded by their murder, destruction and inhumanity.

The Monuments Men, restorers for the army, worked to regain this art in the waning days of the war. Smithsonian Magazine (February 7, 2014) says, “When? [George] Stout got there [an ancient salt mine high in the Austrian Alps] on May 21, 1945, shortly after the end of the hostilities, he documented the contents using Nazi documents: 6,577 paintings, 2,300 drawings or watercolors, 954 prints, 137 sculptures, 129 weapons and armor, 79 baskets with objects, 484 boxes of Objects that are regarded as archives, 78 pieces of furniture, 122 tapestries, 1,200-1,700 boxes of apparently books or the like and 283 boxes with completely unknown contents. “

The numbers are overwhelming. The struggle for the return to the rightful owners and heirs continues to this day. The provenance played an important role, which led to the return of objects to legal heirs.

The Vatican.

Judaica treasures have been of interest to many conquerors for two millennia. Dr. Michael A. Calvo: “These thefts include temple candelabra that Pope Innocent III. from Baldwin I. Temple shofar and utensils; Vestments of the high priest; the Tzitz (crown); the Nezer (blade); a gold plaque with the words Kodesh le-YHWH (“consecrated to the Lord”); Prayer books; Documents; Fonts; 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 storerooms, libraries and museums. ” [Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, The Holy See and Israel: The Historic Fight Against the Jews and Their State]

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

It is important to return all looted Judaica works of art, texts, and artifacts. From a Jewish perspective, these looted items are part of Jewish identity, history, and sacred religious practices. Many original Hebrew texts contain glimpses of Judaism as practiced today, while sacred religious artifacts and objets d’art depict Jewish community life over the centuries.

Imagine the reception the returned items would receive in Israel and the implications for the scholarship. Israel is very experienced in collecting, preserving, exhibiting and sharing. For example, all one has to do is see the clear images of the Israel Museum of the Dead Sea Scrolls and see how they have been shared online to both scientists and the public. The Vatican Archives do not show 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, 14. That you are our elder brothers. Jews and Christians are trustees and witnesses of one of the Ten Commandments shaped ethics, in the observance of which man finds his truth and freedom. “

Powerful words and feelings.

Hasn’t the current pandemic shown how fragile we humans are? Now is the ideal time for the Vatican to turn the words of Pope John Paul II into action. “Do not steal” is not only the eighth commandment of what Pope John Paul II says, Jews and Christians are both “the trustees and witnesses of it”, but Jews are also their “very beloved older brothers”. Then why not give the stolen Jewish treasures back to the Jews now?

There is priority: “Pope Paul VI. has initiated a process of returning relics to the Orthodox Church. In 1965, relics of Saint Titus that had been brought to Venice in 1669 were returned to Crete. In 2000, Pope John Paul II returned 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 presented the Kazan Madonna to the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow. Are Jews less entitled 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.]

Surely the Vatican can do the “Christian thing” and return what was unfortunately acquired through looting back to its rightful heir, the State of Israel, the rightful representative of the worldwide Jewish community. The time is now.

The author is a former NYC advertising agency and marketing director. Lecturer at Rutgers University School of Communication & Information and consultant. He made aliyah in 2015 and lives in Ashkelon.


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