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These playing cards could help find priceless artwork stolen by the Nazis during World War 2

Monuments Men Foundation’s WWII Most Wanted Art deck features 52 works, from Van Gogh to Renoir, that vanished during the 1940s.

WWII Most Wanted Art playing cards deck
Image credit: Monuments Men Foundation for the Preservation of Art

A new deck of playing cards featuring famous artworks stolen by the Nazis during World War II hopes to track down the real-life artworks and return them to their rightful owners.

The WWII Most Wanted Art deck has been released by the Monuments Men Foundation, the non-profit organisation founded in 2007 to continue to work of its namesake: the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives programme. The original ‘Monuments Men’ was formed in 1943 by hundreds of members - not all of whom were men - across the Allied armies who worked to protect and recover works of art and other cultural artefacts stolen by or hidden from the Nazis during the Second World War. The group was dissolved in 1946 shortly after the end of the conflict.

The deck is made up of 52 works of art that haven’t been widely seen in public since the 1940s, following their confiscation or looting by the Nazis. The images on the cards are drawn from historical photographs and other sources, while their description provides a backstory on each work’s suspected fate. In addition to the traditional four-suit deck of playing cards, two Joker cards depict photo albums featuring additional works seized or sought by the Nazis and Hitler himself.

"There are no other examples of decks of cards being used to find missing works of art," Monuments Men Foundation president Anna Bottinelli told Dicebreaker. "However, it is an old US military tradition to produce decks of cards to create awareness about a specific subject. Most recently, decks were produced featuring most-wanted fugitives from the Iraq War and to help soldiers identify aircraft in World War II."

WWII Most Wanted Art playing cards deck
Image credit: Monuments Men Foundation for the Preservation of Art

The paintings, sculptures and other works include works by European artists including Vincent Van Gogh - whose 1888 painting The Painter on the Way to Tarascon was hidden in a salt mine and reportedly destroyed in a fire in 1945, only for the possibility of its survival to be rumoured decades later - and Egon Schiele, whose expressionist Boats Mirrored in the Water was originally owned by Jewish cabaret star Fritz Grünbaum and seized upon his imprisonment in Dachau concentration camp, where he was murdered in 1941. Boats Mirrored in the Water was subsequently auctioned and sold during the 1950s and ‘60s, and has been in an unknown private collection since 1990 - one of several ‘missing’ works to be held privately by anonymous dealers and owners.

Other famous names featured in the deck include Pierre-August Renoir, Edgar Degas and August Rodin, whose bronze sculpture Madame Rodin was sold by owner Dr. Max Meirowsky to fund his escape from Nazi Germany in 1938.

"There are hundreds of thousands of works of art still missing since the end of the war and this deck represents the tip of the iceberg, but it offers a good variety of objects (not just paintings, but also sculptures, documents, religious objects and tapestries) spanning from the 10th through the 20th centuries, and major European artists from various periods," Bottinelli said, revealing that a year had been spent selecting the included objects.

"Additionally, the works included are the ones we have a reason to believe survived the war. We aren’t wasting time on works we believe to have been destroyed. Their whereabouts also had to be unknown; none of them are currently the subject of a court case."

Monuments Man James Rorimer (back, holding the notepad) supervises American GIs as they carry paintings from Neuschwanstein Castle in Germany, May 1945. Image: National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, MD

The suit and value assigned to each card reflect their estimated value, with up to $25,000 - for an ace - offered as a reward for information leading to the legal recovery of each work. Joining Van Gogh's missing painting, representing the Ace of Hearts, among the most coveted masterpieces is Hans Memling’s 15th-century Portrait of a Young Man, which has not been seen since it vanished while being transported to northern Italy in 1944 and appears as the King of Diamonds in the deck.

"Each work of art included in our deck of cards is priceless, especially to the people/institution that are missing it," Bottinelli said. "How do you assign value to an object (any object) stripped from family during WWII (oftentimes as a result of persecution) and missing ever since? So, I don’t like to talk about value in that sense, but I suppose market value would suggest the Van Gogh’s The Painter on the Way to Tarascon belonging to Kulturhistorisches Museum in Magdeburg, Germany, and Raphael’s Portrait of a Young Man, belonging to the Czartoryski Museum in Krakow, are worth several millions of dollars.

"I am looking forward to revealing a 16th-century Persian carpet owned by Baron Ferenc Hatvany, a 12th-century reliquary from the Quedlinburg Abbey in Germany and a painting by old master Lucas Cranach the Elder, belonging to the Anhalt Picture Gallery in Dessau, Germany, where we returned three paintings already in 2015."

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