'The Ghent Altarpiece' (1432) by Jan van Eyck Erich Lessing / Art Resource
In the next few days "The Monuments Men," directed by George Clooney and boasting an all-star cast, will be previewed in staid and upper-crust locations such as the National Gallery of Art and Harvard's Kennedy School of Government before being released nationally on Feb. 7. This makes sense, for the film is about a small group of art professionals, many of them from Ivy League colleges and top U.S. museums, who, in the last days of the war and well after the surrender of Germany, secured and preserved millions of European cultural objects looted by the Nazis and returned them to the nations from which they had been taken. The adventures of this unlikely group make Indiana Jones look like an amateur.
About 400 of these men and women would eventually be placed in the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives sections of the Allied armies, a policy that resulted from lobbying by U.S. art-world leaders and politicians that also would persuade President Franklin D. Roosevelt to establish the Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in War Areas in 1943. The commission made sure the people selected were transferred to MFAA duties from all corners of the war effort. George Stout, a leading conservator at Harvard's Fogg Museum, had been perfecting airplane paint for the Navy. Others, good at geography and languages, had ended up in intelligence. They would have the adventure of their lives.
I was fortunate to have met many of them in the course of my work in museums, but was unaware of their wartime feats. That would change in 1980 when I read the obituary of Rose Valland. She had been a curator at the Jeu de Paume Museum during the German Occupation. The Nazis used the museum to warehouse their loot—mostly the collections of French Jews like the Rothschilds and the stocks of prominent dealers like Paul Rosenberg. The looters did not know that Valland spoke German or that she copied the coded lists of storage places in Germany where the works were being sent. Thanks to her, some 60,000 works of art would be recovered for France.
'Astronomer' (1668) by Johannes Vermeer Musée du Louvre / René-Gabriel Ojéda
The obituary sparked my interest in the Monuments Men, and I soon found that their ranks included many household names of the postwar art world, as well as artists, cultural journalists, decorators, architects, archivists and art benefactors of various stripes.
The first Monuments Man to go into action was Harvard classicist Mason Hammond. Despite frantic efforts at home to prepare maps and lists for the Monuments Men, they were not ready when Hammond landed in Sicily in 1943. Armed only with a tourist guidebook, a rickety car and knowledge of classical Latin, he would nevertheless manage to help the indigenous arts authorities protect their priceless cultural heritage. Hammond's vivid reports and later incidents of vandalism by Allied troops on the Italian mainland got international attention and would lead Supreme Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower to order his troops to "respect . . . monuments so far as war allows" and to approve the appointment of a few more Monuments Men.
The Monuments Men would be better prepared by D-Day, but it was not until they got to Paris that they would begin to learn the full details of the Nazis' confiscation efforts from French officials—and especially from Valland, who after considerable persuasion would eventually share all her secretly gathered information with Monuments Man and future Metropolitan Museum of Art Director James J. Rorimer.
The Monuments Men were amazed at the scope of the Nazi art operations. Four major bureaucracies, personally controlled by Adolf Hitler (who planned to build a supermuseum in his hometown of Linz, Austria), Hermann Göring, Heinrich Himmler and Alfred Rosenberg had planned the complete rearrangement of Europe's entire patrimony in accordance with Nazi ideology. "Degenerate" art was purged from German museums. Works would be confiscated from "alien races" such as Jews and Slavs, whose cultures would eventually be obliterated, and "Germanic" works were to be seized and taken back to the Reich from the occupied lands. All told, the Nazis had confiscated and bought millions of objects and moved them to Germany.
The Monuments Men were well suited to track down the loot. Most had spent considerable time in Europe before the war, knew where things were supposed to be, and knew the curators and collectors well. Such connections were invaluable in France, where the low-ranking Monuments Men could schmooze with the likes of the Ganays, Florence Gould, Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse but had a tough time with generals who fancied living in chateaux, including Versailles and Fontainebleau.
Once in Germany, the more sophisticated Monuments Men could look up old schloss-dwelling friends and be invited for lunch, where they would quietly check for "displaced art" that might have been stored there. But such pleasant interludes were rare in devastated Germany. Very late in the war, as the bombing of their cities increased, the Nazis moved the looted art and the nation's own treasures to safety. Millions of objects were stored in mines, castles, barns and bunkers. Some of these places had been booby-trapped by fanatic Nazis, and two Monuments Men were killed in action. Few in number and alone in most formations, they were soon deluged by calls to secure "Michelangelos" (the generic army term for a painting). In the early days in Germany there was no place to take the objects or, indeed, transportation for them. Walker Hancock, a sculptor in civilian life, later described the surreal scene as he brought one collection back to HQ on a weapons carrier following a tank column "laboring through the dark December forest . . . [as] the gilded rococo frames glistened indecently in that moving mass of brown, green and olive drab."
Cultural impresario Lincoln Kirstein's greatest adventure began less dramatically. He and his superior officer, architect Robert Posey, were moving across the Rhineland in search of treasure when Posey developed a toothache. They stopped in Trier to consult a dentist, who said that his son had been involved in art issues in France and was now home. Questioning revealed that the son was Hermann Bunjes, one of Göring's most important assistants in the looting of France. From Bunjes, Kirstein and Posey first learned of the existence of the Alt Aussee mine, near Salzburg, that contained some 6,500 paintings, as well as large numbers of sculptures, furniture and other objects. The hoard included the core of Hitler's collection: some of the greatest works of art in Europe, among them Jan van Eyck's "Ghent Altarpiece" (1432), Michelangelo's "Bruges Madonna" (1501-04) and Johannes Vermeer's "Astronomer" (1668). An unforgettable vision for those, like Kirstein, who suddenly caught the "miraculous jewels" of Van Eyck's crowned virgin in the light of their flickering miners' lamps.
After the mine was liberated on May 8, 1945, local officials fell all over themselves to tell the Monuments Men how they had sabotaged Hitler's plan to blow up the mine and its contents. But the Americans were more interested in getting the works out of the reach of the approaching Red Army. Time was of the essence, and Stout organized convoys to empty the mine, wrapping he "Ghent Altarpiece" and other masterpieces in full-length sheepskin Wehrmacht greatcoats he had found while evacuating another treasure trove from a mine at Merkers near Erfurt.
The Monuments Men spent little time in Berlin. By the time any of them got there the Soviets had taken anything of value, deeming it war reparations. The Western Allies, aware of this, had made frantic efforts to move art as well as items such as gold bullion out of what would soon become the Soviet Zone. There were no transportation problems in these cases: The tons of gold got the attention of commanders, and the treasures were moved in what the Monuments Men described as "technicolor" convoys—their escorts bristling with serious guns—that swept back along the deserted autobahns to a bank vault in Frankfurt.
That vault was soon overwhelmed by the massive caches of art being recovered from several thousand hiding places, and it was clear that a number of collecting points would be required to house them. Finding intact buildings to shelter thousands of works was not easy. Rorimer had to go head to head with Gen. George S. Patton to secure the former Nazi party headquarters in Munich that Patton coveted for his own headquarters. Rorimer won, the hard-charging general no match for someone used to dealing with New York museum donors.
The officers who first set up and manned the collecting points at Munich, Wiesbaden and elsewhere performed miracles. Craig Hugh Smyth, later head of Bernard Berenson's Villa Il Tatti in Florence, in a couple of weeks prepared the Munich facility to receive tons of looted artworks worth billions of dollars—among them Leonardo da Vinci's "Lady With an Ermine" (1490) and the "Ghent Altarpiece." To protect his charges, the quiet and courtly Smyth had to replace glass in hundreds of windows, scrounge to get enough MPs as guards and fend off criticism that the mostly German upper-class secretaries he had hired to process the paperwork for the artworks were too good-looking. They were, in fact, quite a snappy group.
At Wiesbaden, Walter Farmer and Monuments Woman Edith Standen, later a curator of tapestry at the Met and mentor of its current director, Thomas P. Campbell, performed similar miracles, as did Seymour Pomrenze at the Offenbach collecting point, which would house tons of Jewish ritual objects and books. For six years after the war, experts would come to these collecting points to identify items removed from their countries and take them home.
It was Smyth who escorted one of the first loads of recovered treasures back to their home in Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum. There, to his surprise, he was honored with a lunch of oysters, plover's eggs and venison—not as extravagant as it sounds, as these were among the few things available at the time.
U.S. G.I.s at Germany's Neuschwanstein Castle under the command of Capt. James J. Rorimer (at center rear). Rorimer would later become the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. National Archives and Records Administration, 239-RC-14-5
Some of the Monuments Men had used the cover of the OSS, predecessor of the CIA. They were soon in touch with those who were beginning to collect evidence for the Nuremberg Trials. Three of these officers, art historians Lane Faison, James S. Plaut and Theodore Rousseau, wrote the exhaustive investigatory reports on Nazi looting that, to this day, form the basis of our knowledge.
Plaut and Faison regaled me with stories of life at their interrogation center near Alt Aussee. There the principal dealers and curators who had worked for the Nazis were detained and questioned for several months. When fueled by wine, some of the Nazi prisoners could be charming. But as their stories unfolded, the Allied art experts became increasingly disgusted, overwhelmed by the massive amounts of testimony that so clearly illustrated the "cruelty, deceit and hypocrisy" of those who would go to any lengths "to enhance the cultural prestige of the Master Race." It was during these sessions that the Allies learned of the activities of the dealer Hildebrand Gurlitt, whose son Cornelius was recently found to have a large hoard of paintings hidden in Munich. Hildebrand Gurlitt was detained in 1945 and the works in his possession seized, but like a number of other wartime dealers, he clearly had salted away a lot more.
The Monuments Men might be startled by their new billing as superheroes. Most volunteered or were drafted like everyone else, did what they saw as their jobs, and then went home to resume their careers. Indeed, several were suspicious when I approached them for interviews. Louvre curator Germain Bazin hung up on me, saying only "Madame, it would take a whole book to tell that story." To protect himself from misquotes, sculptor Walker Hancock had set up a tape recorder in his living room in Rockport, Mass. We started talking. We had a glass of wine, and another. After a time the tape ran out, and we did not notice. We had lunch. Hancock jumped up every few minutes to bring me more photographs as story after story emerged. When the interview was over I discovered the chair I was sitting on was covered in one of the sheepskin coats Stout had used at Alt Aussee. Later I would learn that future National Gallery director J. Carter Brown had one too, brought back to him by his father, Monuments Man John Nicholas Brown.
During these interviews I was surprised at how interested each Monuments Man was in what the others had done—assuming, as most do, that they had worked closely together. But, in fact, they almost never saw one another in the field, nor were they able to communicate on a regular basis. So they were fascinated by the details of the various missions of their colleagues. I am sure that those who are no longer with us would be delighted by this cinematic re-creation of their exploits. Can't wait to see it myself.
Mrs. Nicholas is the author of "The Rape of Europa: The Fate of Europe's Treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War" (1994).