- Associated Press - Sunday, May 17, 2015

LIVINGSTON, Mont. (AP) - It’s been 70 years, but several pieces of art belonging to a German family - possibly removed by American soldiers at the end of World War II - have been returned to Germany, thanks to two local brothers.

Randy Holland, 70, a Livingston resident and a former Park County treasurer, and his brother, Michael, 67, of Great Falls, traveled to Washington, D.C., recently to attend an art restitution ceremony hosted by the U.S. State Department to officially return two paintings to the German family to whom they belonged.

The paintings had been in the possession of the brothers’ aunt, the late Margaret Reeb, who purchased them - not knowing they were stolen - in post-war Germany in 1945 or 1946, the Holland brothers said.

The Nazi stealing of art and valuables belonging to Jewish citizens is well-documented, but museums and other private homes were also looted. And some works of art - against regulations - were appropriated by U.S. troops occupying post-war Germany, remarked Victoria Nuland, State Department assistant secretary/Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, in an online video of the ceremony held May 5 in Washington.

The story of the Nazi art looting was highlighted in a 2014 movie, “The Monuments Men,” featuring George Clooney and Matt Damon, which was based on a true story. The Monuments Men Foundation for the Preservation of Art, a nonprofit devoted to restoring art lost during wartime and headed by author Robert Edsel, gained attention after the film was released.

But before “The Monuments Men” film, the Holland brothers knew they had some small pieces of probably valuable art they had inherited from aunt Margaret Reeb.

When she died at age 91 in 2005, the Holland brothers - her heirs - found two artworks she had left behind in a Livingston safety deposit box. They found a note in her handwriting along with the works that said, “Paid for in Germany 1945-6. They’re supposed to be very valuable.”

Michael Holland said his aunt told him she purchased the works from American servicemen who had come to her hotel. He said she must have been somehow acquainted with them or else she would not have opened the hotel room door to them.

He said she didn’t know they were stolen. And at that time, he said, it was common for servants in a German household to sell items to American servicemen.

The two pieces of art were a miniature of Queen Victoria and her firstborn daughter, Princess Victoria, and a small painting believed to be an Anthony van Dyck or a copy of a painting by van Dyck known as the “Triple Portrait of Charles I,” a king of England.

“One is a miniature, I was told, by van Dyck, of King Charles of England. Van Dyck was one of the ‘Old Dutch Masters,’” Reeb had written in her note about the works.

Randy Holland told the Livingston Enterprise (https://bit.ly/1JRswsU ) that he and his brother pondered over the years what to do with the works. They considered taking the pieces to New York to be appraised, but never got around to it.

It wasn’t until recently they learned the pieces had come from a German castle and had belonged to a family named Hesse.

“We had no idea they were stolen property,” Holland said.

Michael Holland said he was familiar with the Monuments Men Foundation even before the movie after reading a book on the topic by Edsel. He checked out the organization online and learned about art restitution.

“It just hit me, that’s what we’ve got to do,” he said Friday.

He made the call to the foundation, which launched the process of eventually returning the works.

Reeb lived a long and interesting life, Randy Holland said. She served in World War II in the Special Services, helping provide libraries and other entertainment for American servicemen in Europe. It was probably during that time she purchased the two artworks.

His aunt had an eye for art and an eye for history, Holland said, and liked to meet famous people. Reeb was acquainted with Eleanor Roosevelt, even having her photo taken with her.

Reeb was in Germany after the war ended, and somehow got a seat to the most famous war trial in modern history, perhaps on a press pass she managed to secure.

“She got into the Nuremberg trials when even generals couldn’t get in,” Holland said.

Reeb later became a schoolteacher, Holland said. She taught in Puerto Rico for a while. She came home and taught in Montana schools.

She applied for a job in the Livingston School District, but wasn’t hired, so she moved to Phoenix, where she taught until retirement. She spent her summers in the Livingston and Cooke City, where she held a number of mining claims. She came home to Livingston when she retired.

Reeb never married.

“She had a boyfriend who was killed in the war. I think it turned her off to another relationship,” Holland said.

During the restitution ceremony in Washington, Edsel, chairman of the board of the Monuments Men Foundation, explained the history of the two pieces of art. They belonged to the Hesse family, which had owned the Kronberg Castle, near Frankfurt. The castle had been requisitioned as an Army officer’s club during the American post-war occupation of Germany.

“The two paintings of the House of Hesse come from the collection of Empress Frederick, the wife of the German Emperor Frederick III, Queen Victoria’s eldest daughter and formerly the heiress to the British throne,” Peter Wittig, the German Ambassador to the United States, said in the video of the restitution ceremony.

According to an article by Stephen Harding, “Soldiers of Fortune - The Hesse Jewel Heist,” that appeared in a history magazine called “World War II,” the Hesse family had buried a trove of jewelry and loose gems in the castle’s cellar in 1945.

“And while the U.S. military attempted to curtail looting, American soldiers were certainly not above ‘liberating’ items that caught their fancy, especially in the European theater,” Harding states.

The Hollands and their spouses traveled to Washington to attend the formal ceremony returning the works and others to Germany.

Randy Holland said that after learning the history of the artwork in their possession, they never hesitated about returning it.

“It was the proper thing to do,” he said.

___

Information from: Livingston Enterprise, https://www.livingstonenterprise.com


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