Many art dealer of the Nazi era are highly ambivalent in their role, both beneficiaries and victims of the system. They have taken the opportunity to speculate with the easily available works of Jewish owners, the degenerate art, or even abroad looted art. At the same they have also been supportive for persecuted artists, they supported their Jewish employees or fellow art dealers, or saved degenerate art before its destruction. The Frankfurt art dealer William Ettle on the other hand, was a convinced party member of the National Socialists.
Not much is known about William Ettle yet. After having worked as a restorer (1920-26 at Frankfurt’s Städel) and church painter, we know that he already 1926-31 had owned an art shop in Frankfurt, which he was forced to close for economic reasons. In the early days of the Nazi period he sympathized with their ideas: In 1929 he became a member of the SA, in 1930 in the League of Struggle for German Culture and in 1932 he joined the NSDAP. In 1936, he signed his letters as „Rottenführer“ („pack leader“). And he consistently stood by his convictions, particularly with regard to anti-Semitism.
He continued to work as a painter – not always successfully. In 1935 he came in conflict with his client because he had not executed a portrait of the Führer as ordered (he adorned it with unwanted secondary characters, rather than solely depicting Hitler). He also executed further restoration work, such as in the Württemberg Maulbronn Monastery, and Frankfurt’s Carmelite convent.
In 1935 he applied in the City of Frankfurt for admission as auctioneer because – as his resume – of his scientific studies, his rich experience in all fields of art, his skills to identify, investigate and evaluate art values, as well as his practical work in museums and art trade enable him to do so. He also saw an opportunity for himself as an art auctioneer, as the „Jew Helbing’s business can not survive in the long run.“ He was quite convinced of the fact that Jews in the German art world will have no future. In 1935 though, he was rejected by the Reich Chamber of Fine Arts as an auctioneer.
The following year, he reappeared as an art dealer. He acquired a painting by Carl Trost „disarming Conradin the last Hohenstaufen High“, a work of German Romanticism, as part of a heritage. This painting he offered acting as an expert of the Chamber of Commerce to the Kiel Thaulow Museum:
In Nazi state we are today interested to bring back works of art to where they belong, which also prompted me to offer the city of Kiel this work by an artist from Schleswig-Holstein. (Letter by William Ettle, 24.02.1936 to the Management of Thaulow Museum)
In the following years his letterhead was containing the addition of the CCI expert and Ettle tried to attract collectors and dealers in order to be active as an art consultant.
Together with his wife, Anni, he founded 1939 the Kunsthaus Ettle in Frankfurt. A year before he was authorized by the Oberfinanzdirektion (Regional Tax Office) Kassel, as „experts on Jewish Emigrants“ to evaluate confiscated art objects. His area of activities covered aside from Frankfurt also Wiesbaden, Kassel, Hessen whole, the Rhenish Palatinate and the Saar. With this „state-important task“ Ettle could free himself from entering the medical corps he otherwise would have had to attend to in Frankfurt during the wartime. His application of this exemption named openly his task with the „acquisition of works of art owned by Jews,“ which „today will be fulfilled more intense than ever“. 1941-44 he was also authorized to auction those formerly Jewish-owned artworks in his store. He even denounced Jewish collectors living in the area, for example, the family of Baron Goldschmidt-Rothschild or the Wiesbaden collector Max Israel Brings, to use their bequest. But even for the Nazis he went too far in his business practices. In 1941 he was arrested by the Gestapo and accused of personal enrichment from these sales.
1944 he even received occupational ban.
After the World War II Wilhelm Ettle as well as his wife was interrogated by the Allied Arts protection officers – extensive interrogation protocols named „Ettle case“ can be found in the American archives.
Some art works of the art dealer were incorporated in the Wiesbaden Central Collecting Point, where many artworks were restituted.
Wilhelm Ettle was sentenced to seven years in prison in April 1946. However, after his release, he worked as an art dealer in the Rhine-Main area again. What kind of works of art he auctioned after that is not yet documented .
Sources and Literature:
- NARA M1947. Textual records created at the Wiesbaden Central Collecting Point include administrative files and monthly reports. Roll 76, Restitution, Research, And Reference Records, Ettle Case: Political Background
- Eva Mongi-Vollmer, „Alltägliches Recht, alltägliches Unrecht“. Die Gemäldeerwerbungen des Städel 1933-1945. In: Museum im Widerspruch. Das Städel und der Nationalsozialismus“, hrsg. v. Uwe Fleckner u. Max Hollein (= Schriften der Forschungsstelle „Entartete Kunst“, 6), Berlin 2011, S. 181;
- „Biographisches Verzeichnis“. In: Museum im Widerspruch. Das Städel und der Nationalsozialismus, S. 343f.
- arthistoricum.net: German Sales 1901-1945, Auktionshäuser in Frankfurt am Main, http://www.arthistoricum.net/themen/portale/german-sales/auktionshaeuser-a-z/auktionshaeuser-deutschland-a-z/frankfurt-am-main/