Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890)
The Painter on the Way to Tarascon (1888)
oil on canvas, 19.29 x 17.72 in. (49 x 45 cm)
In 1912, The Painter on the Road to Tarascon (1888) by Vincent van Gogh was purchased by the Kaiser Friedrich Museum in Magdeburg, Germany (today, the Cultural History (Kulturhistorisches) Museum Magdeburg). As a sign of its importance to the collection, it was photographed in color in the 1930s, a rare and expensive practice at the time.
When the Nazis came to power, many pieces of modern art were deemed “degenerate,” including some by Van Gogh. The fate of these works in German public collections were most often their requisition and sale, however, The Painter on the Road to Tarascon was for some reason left in Magdeburg. As the war raged on, many German museums evacuated their collections for safekeeping. In the case of the Kaiser Friedrich Museum, it was being directly targeted by British bombing campaigns, and therefore the collection was secretly transported to a salt mine in Stassfurt, nearly 19 miles (30 km) away.
The collection was stored some 1500 ft (460m) down in shaft six of the Neu-Stassfurt salt mine. Located in the seventh shaft was a factory for BMW jet engines for the Luftwaffe. American forces reached the mine at midday on April 12, 1945. It was only a couple of hours later that a fire broke out, lasting four days. Another fire broke out on April 30th, which lasted two weeks.
Investigating a local report on the collection, Monuments Man Maj. Michael C. Ross visited the mine that May and noted that the contents had been “entirely reduced to ashes.” Rumors circulated that the fires had not been an accident, but rather arson, to cover the possible looting of the collection. “The fires were stated to have been caused by displaced persons who entered the cave to loot; in the second case, perhaps through the negligence of the US guards posted on Schacht VII [Shaft VII]. There is no clear evidence whether the fire was set accidentally (very likely if packing cases with excelsior were open) or deliberately.”
These “displaced persons” were thought to be the captive laborers of the Nazis, who had been forced to work in the underground factory. However, no definitive evidence of this has been found, and if looting did take place, it could also have easily been Nazi personnel, local citizenry, or even American military personnel. Only a few small items survived the fire and were recovered, and the complete devastation gave no clues as to what had burned or possibly been removed from the mine.
In more recent years, there has been some evidence that part of the collection could still be discovered. In 1996, a Martin Luther manuscript that had been stored in the mine, Wider Hans Worst, was returned to the Kulturhistorisches Museum Magdeburg after it was discovered in the United States. In 2008, the Museum became aware of an Arnold Böcklin painting spotted in the background of two Helmut Newton photographs. However, it remains unclear whether the painting photographed has been authenticated as the original.