The Real Monuments Men – Rescuing Priceless Artworks During And After WWII

The recent recovery of three priceless paintings, stolen from the villa of Prince Felix of Bourbon-Parma in Camaiore by the Nazi’s in 1944, made a considerable stir in more circles than usual. This was probably due to the screening of a movie called The Monuments Men, in which many such masterpieces were found while some were unsuccessfully searched for.

The movie is loosely based on the non-fictional work of Robert M. Edsel, also titled The Monuments Men. The book recounts the activities of the Monuments Men during and directly after WWII and highlights the tremendous work done by men (and women) in order to save Europe’s precious works of art. Over time, the Monuments Men were to save millions of sculptures, artefacts, books, buildings, monuments, ceramics, religious treasures and paintings.

A number of museum directors and art historians, extremely concerned about news filtering through from the continent (even before the war) regarding the theft and destruction of cultural treasures, had lobbied for the creation of an organisation which would identify and protect those European monuments and artistic treasures. The result was the establishment, in 1943, of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Section (MFAA) attached to the Allied military and better known as the Monuments Men.

While the original MFAA comprised 11 officials, there were soon a huge number of volunteers (curators of museums, architects, archivists, artists, scholars and historians) from many countries, who offered their services and support in this work. The Monuments Men were tasked with assisting the combat troops to identify and protect museums, churches and cultural artefacts from damage from Allied attacks. However, as the war was nearing its close, their focus became the rescue and recovery of the art and artefacts that had been so ruthlessly, plundered by the Nazis.

Hitler’s interest in art had caused him to lead the Nazis into the looting of famous works of art of all types from museums, libraries, churches, universities and even from private collections – particularly those of Jewish families. The Nazis used museum inventories as “shopping lists” and stole works by masters such as Michelangelo and Rembrandt amongst many others. Goering, also an art enthusiast, seized hundreds of items for his own private collection.

Hitler selected those works he regarded as suitable for the ”Fuhrermuseum” that he planned to build in Linz, Austria, which was to house the world’s greatest art collection. Since he hated what he called ‘degenerate’ art (cubism, impressionism, surrealism or any art which did not conform to what he saw as supporting the idea of Aryan Supremacy), he simply sold them for Nazi funds or caused them to be burnt.

Hitler had ordered that, in the event of his death, or of Germany losing the war, all valuable stores and buildings that would in any way benefit the Allies were to be totally destroyed. This decree, known as the Nero Decree, was most fortunately for posterity, ignored by various officers and thus most of the hidden, stolen treasures were not destroyed.

By May of 1945, with Europe liberated, the extent of the Nazi plunder of the cultural treasures of Europe was being realised. The Monuments Men discovered artefacts of all types hidden inside salt mines, packed in crates, in private homes, inside abandoned buildings and even in castles. Over 1,500 repositories of looted goods were located in Germany alone. R. Posey and L. Kirstein were the first Monuments Men through the rubble blocking the entrance to the Austrian salt mine at Altaussee.

In one of the first chambers, they came upon The Adoration of the Lamb by Jan van Eyck, a masterpiece from the 15th-century. The Monuments Men discovered more than 6,500 paintings, including some of Michelangelo’s masterpieces there. A further large stash of over 6,000 paintings was found in Germany, at the Neuschwanstein Castle. This fairy-tale castle (the model for Disneyland’s Sleeping Beauty castle) had held treasures that had been taken from France.

Kirstein, Posey, Rorimer and Stout were some of the MFAA who were instrumental in saving and locating countless artworks plundered by the Nazis. Not to be forgotten too was the work of Rose Valland – a French woman who, working in the Jeu de Paume museum, secretly kept track of where looted artworks were sent, which aided the tracing of thousands of items. By 1951, the Monuments Men had managed to locate, preserve, remove and return approximately five million cultural artefacts of various types to their rightful owners.

Today – more than 70 years later, despite painstaking and continuing endeavours, there are many thousands of documents and artworks still missing. Discoveries are however still being made. Over 1000 artworks were located in an apartment belonging to Cornelius Gurliff in 2012. More than 200 of them are suspected to have been originally looted by the Nazis. In December of 2014, there was great excitement at the discovery of the three 15th century paintings mentioned above,

These paintings; Madonna and Child   by Giovanni Battista Cima, the Holy Trinity by Alessio Baldovinetti and Jesus at the temple by Girolamo dai Libri, were located in the collection of a family in Monza and have been entrusted to the Pinacoteca di Brera, the main public gallery for paintings in Milan.

Without the [Monuments Men], a lot of the most important treasures of European culture would be lost,” Lynn.H. Nicholas says. “They did an extraordinary amount of work protecting and securing these things.

Who knows what art treasures are still lying hidden in some obscure place – waiting to be found – and who knows which ones will one day be discovered and admired for generations to come.


Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE