By Madeline Orton
It was a monumental task: return years worth of looted, stolen and forced-sale artwork to the rightful owners. This was the work of the Monuments Men, the subjects of a new feature film and pioneers of the reparations work that continues today all over the world and right here in New Jersey.
“There was a lot of looting. Things were boxed and carted,” explains Tom Sundstrom at his brother Tony’s home in Lambertville. New Jersey residents Tom and Tony Sundstrom are descendants of the Hatvanys, one of Hungary’s wealthiest families before World War II. Their relatives lost paintings, porcelain, gold and real estate when the Nazis invaded and plundered the country.
“Anecdotally, some went into basements of banks and were looted from there,” Tom says, “but other things just disappeared.”
The work of the Monuments Men helped place claims like theirs after the war, but much work still remains undone. Lawyer Dustin Stein follows in their footsteps helping families including the Sundstroms.
“Hitler had an objective that there was specific art that was ‘German,’ that was part of German culture,” says Dustin Stein, a consultant with Klein & Solomon, LLP working on the Sundstroms’ case. He explains the Nazi Party’s outlook on art: “That stuff that was not German culture was garbage. It was bad for the Aryanization.”
Almost all modern art, like one painting by German expressionist Gabriele Münter, was labeled as “degenerate art” and either sold, stolen and stockpiled or burned.
The brothers began researching their history after learning about their family tree. The results were shocking.
“Growing up, Mom and Aunt Toni didn’t really want to talk about stuff,” says Tony Sundstrom.
The Sundstroms have pored over the case for 12 years. Still, hundreds of works of art remain unfound.
“The Hatvanys had a great history, as so many families did, and we just really want to…let the world know what existed before this,” explains Tony.
For Stein, preserving that history has a much broader impact. “For one, obviously it refutes Holocaust denial,” says Stein of his work. “Secondly, it speaks to the culture that existed in Europe and a lot of it that was destroyed.”
Stein and the Sundstroms hope the new film will fuel interest in the cause. “There are still people out there who know this stuff and who are reluctant to come out and we’re hoping that people will come forward and say, ‘I know where that stuff is,’” says Tony.
The most important stockpile of looted art uncovered since the work of the Monuments Men was just found in November in an apartment in Munich — more than 1,400 works in total. For families like the Sundstroms, there may be hope yet.