Completed in the spring of 1913, Tower of Blue Horses is considered one of the great masterpieces of German Expressionism and one of the artist Franz Marc’s finest works. It’s a monumental painting—measuring six feet, six inches by four feet, three inches—that depicts four thundering blue horses said to represent the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Beautiful and ominous, it reflects Marc’s use of bold color and form, and imagery of animals in nature, to capture the spiritual truth of reality. It was painted as Marc was experimenting with letting go completely of form and is significant as an early harbinger of abstraction.

The picture appeared briefly, in a startling cameo, in this year’s Academy Award–nominated film Never Look Away, and is the subject of Der Turm der Blauen Pferde, a thriller published in February. In 2017, in simultaneous exhibitions at the Pinakothek der Moderne, in Munich, and the Haus am Waldsee, in Berlin, 16 contemporary artists paid homage to Marc’s picture with works that examined its “mythology” and the enduring fascination it evokes.

And yet, few people, if any, alive today have ever seen the painting itself. It has been missing since 1937.

An Art-World Mystery

Its vanishing is one of the art world’s great mysteries, even more gripping perhaps than the fate of the Amber Room and Raphael’s Portrait of a Young Man, two other art treasures missing since World War II—because, unlike other lost masterpieces, there is tantalizing evidence that Tower of Blue Horses still exists.

The co-founder, with Wassily Kandinsky, of the “Blaue Reiter” group of Expressionists—who also included August Macke, Heinrich Campendonk, and Paul Klee—Marc is one of Germany’s most admired artists. Tower of Blue Horses was created when he was at the pinnacle of his career. It was seen by the public for the first time in the fall of 1913 at the First German Autumn Salon, in Berlin. Its subsequent history was tumultuous, reflecting the chaos and horror that was soon to sweep Europe.

Enlisted into the German Army in August 1914, with the outbreak of World War I, Marc was killed in action near Verdun in March 1916, at the age of 36. About a year after Marc’s death, the painting, which the artist left to his widow, Maria, was nearly destroyed in a fire at a Berlin art-transport company. His friend Paul Klee repaired some of the damaged work, but the fire left a permanent scar, a darkened area along the bottom of the canvas.

Franz Marc, circa 1913.

In 1919, Maria Marc sold the painting to Berlin’s Nationalgalerie, where it hung until 1936, when the modern section of the museum was closed. By then, modernist art had come under relentless attack from the Nazis. A year later, Marc’s work was confiscated in the Nazi dragnet of “degenerate” art belonging to German museums, a purging that resulted in the removal of more than 17,000 works from public institutions. Some 740 of these were selected to appear in the infamous exhibition of “degenerate” art, “Entartete Kunst,” that opened in Munich in July 1937. Tower of Blue Horses was among them. But within days of the opening, the painting was pulled from the show—some say on Hitler’s direct orders—after the German officers federation complained that Marc, a war hero who had been awarded the Iron Cross, should not be associated with the shame of the exhibition.

Within days of the opening, the painting was pulled from the show—some say on Hitler’s direct orders.

This was the last time the public would see the painting. After this, Tower of Blue Horses slipped into the shadows. Records show that it was moved to a Nazi storage depot for “degenerate” art in Berlin. Identified by its inventory number “14126,” it soon appeared on a list of art deemed valuable enough to be sold internationally for much-needed foreign currency. It was priced then at 80,000 reichsmarks (about $568,000 today). Marc’s painting was then moved, along with the other internationally salable works, to Schloss Niederschönhausen outside Berlin.

In 1938, Hermann Göring, Hitler’s reichsmarschall and a gluttonous collector whose personal collection overflowed with looted and confiscated art, pulled around a dozen works from the stash. According to Beyond the Dreams of Avarice, the catalogue of Göring’s art collection by the art historian Nancy H. Yeide, Göring intended to trade or sell these modern works—by Van Gogh, Cézanne, Munch, and Marc, among others—for the classical and Old Master art he preferred.

Tower of Blue Horses was among the paintings taken by Göring. In the meticulous list kept by the Nazis of art confiscated from German museums, Tower appears as painting No. 295—out of 550 taken from the Nationalgalerie—with a marking in pen next to it that reads, “rm,” and then, typed, “Goring.” Its value was dramatically reduced now—to 20,000 reichsmarks (about $140,000 today). Göring reportedly paid the Nationalgalerie for these works, although it was a pittance: 165,000 reichsmarks (about $1.2 million today) for 13 masterpieces.

In the list kept by the Nazis, Tower of Blue Horses appears as painting No. 295. Typed next to it on the list: “Goring.”

And then where did it go? Tower of Blue Horses did not appear at the controversial 1939 auction of Nazi-confiscated works at the Fisher Gallery in Lucerne. Nor are there any records that indicate if, and to whom, Göring may have sold it. Oddly, according to the catalogue raisonné of Marc’s oil paintings by Annegret Hoberg and Isabelle Jansen, two other Marc pictures that were taken by Göring, Three Deer Roe (1911) and Stags in the Wood (1911), have also vanished, without any record of having been sold.

Were these loaned or given as gifts by Göring? It is almost impossible to know. This, after all, was “degenerate” art and thus unlikely to be found adorning the sitting rooms and offices of Nazi officials. Yet, for all the Nazis’ public disparagement of modernism, there were some who liked the modernists—Goebbels, for one.

So, what happened to Tower of Blue Horses? Was it, as some have suggested, destroyed at Carinhall, Göring’s hunting estate, when he ordered it blown up in 1945? Did it burn on one of the trains the Nazis loaded with loot as they fled Berlin? Was it incinerated in an Allied bombing raid?

“Entartete Kunst,” an exhibition of “degenerate art” in Munich, 1937. Tower of Blue Horses was pulled from the show and has not been seen in public since.

At least three accounts suggest that Marc’s painting survived the war. In the 1970s, Edwin Redslob, an art historian and the former chief of the Weimar Republic’s culture agency, wrote that he had seen Tower of Blue Horses in Berlin in 1945, shortly after the fall of the city to Allied forces. He was invited by Russian soldiers to view it, he said, in a villa—now the gallery Haus am Waldsee—that had been the home of the deputy director of the Nazi film institute. Interviewed decades later, Redslob, who has since died, had little memory of that time. But he was not the only one who claimed to have seen the painting.

A Cold Trail

In 1961, a journalist, Joachim Nawrocki, said he had seen it in the winter of 1948 and 1949—during the Berlin blockade—in a youth hostel next door to the Haus am Waldsee. The building was occupied during the war by Count von Helldorff, Berlin’s chief of police. According to Nawrocki, the painting was hanging above a staircase, without a frame, and there were “two or three cuts” about eight inches long in the canvas. He said he believed it was a copy and that it didn’t occur to him that it was the original until 1961, when he learned that the painting was missing.

After that the track went cold—until 2001. That year, Jan Ahlers, the noted collector of German Expressionist art, reported that he was approached by an anonymous person offering to sell him Tower of Blue Horses. The seller told him that the painting was in a bank vault in Switzerland and suggested a meeting. Ahlers, who died in 2013, instead reported the incident to the Franz Marc Museum in Kochel and to the Westphalian police. According to Ahler, there was no follow-up.

Is the painting in Russia—in a private home, or in storage at a museum? Is it locked in a Swiss bank vault, or in an attic somewhere in Germany? Or was it destroyed long ago?

The answer may never be known, but the past is still giving up its treasures. The 2012 discovery in Munich of more than 1,200 artworks confiscated or looted by the Nazi regime has raised hopes that more missing pieces will still be found. Amidst the art crammed into the small Munich apartment of Cornelius Gurlitt, son of Hildebrand Gurlitt, one of the Nazi’s preferred dealers, were numerous pieces of “degenerate art”—many, like Tower of Blue Horses, confiscated from Germany’s museums. Among them was a long-lost 1911 watercolor with pencil on paper, taken in 1937 from the state museum in Halle, entitled Horses in Landscape, by Franz Marc.

Suzanna Andrews is an Editor at Large for AIR MAIL