In a wee article published on 10 March 1951, “Le Monde” reported the discovery of crates at Ilbarritz, near Biarritz, labeled “Martin Bormann, Reichsleiter, München.” Joke, right? Wrong.
Incredible, but true.
As far as can be ascertained, on or about 8 March 1951, eighteen crates were found in bushes alongside a beach at Ilbarritz, just south of Biarritz, in Basque country, a hop and a skip away from the Franco-Spanish border and from the town of San Sebastian. The crates were turned over to local police who called in Customs who, in turn, summoned Pierre Labrouche, director of the Musée Bonnat in Bayonne, to inspect the crates and give his professional assessment as to quality, value, and origin. Mr. Labrouche would only comment on the sixteen paintings that were housed in two large crates, some of which were of fairly decent quality. The rest of the items, he professed, fell outside his area of expertise since they were mostly decorative objects, like clocks, porcelain and other objets d’art.
Upon closer examination, one of the paintings yielded a clue as to the origin of the crates. An oil by a German artist, Boettger, it had been exhibited in Munich in 1942. Another indication on the back of the painting pointed to the Obersalzberg at Berchtesgaden.
In April and May 1945, American troops had liberated Berchtesgaden and Münich, stumbling upon troves of looted art. The French Foreign Affairs Ministry’s art recovery specialists, and, in particular, Ms. Rose Valland, speculated that the painting and the other items had been plundered from the main Nazi loot depots in and around Munich, and that some of the items had belonged to Martin Bormann. According to Ms. Valland, there had been significant acts of plunder committed by local laborers at the Führerbau in Munich and in Berchtesgaden before the arrival of American troops there. It could be that some of the thieves made off with the loot, crated it, and planned on crossing into Spain with it.
Why those 18 crates ended up in bushes overlooking a white sand beach south of Biarritz will never be known. As to the owners of the plundered items in those crates, the mystery will endure since no inventory of Martin Bormann's collection survived the war, assuming that one even did exist.
The crates were shipped to Paris for ‘further disposition.’