A True Art Adventure: The Real-Life Story of the Monuments Men

Rorimer at Neuschwanstein
Rorimer at Neuschwanstein

Priceless works of art disappearing throughout Europe. Centuries-old monuments imperiled. Masterpieces hidden inside salt mines. A world-famous museum evacuated via ambulance. Clandestine inventories of war loot secretly compiled by quiet museum administrators. Gold, silver, and jewels found in a legendary castle. A small group of artists and scholars turned unlikely heroes, and a race against time to save Europe’s cultural history. This may sound like an adventure movie, but in fact, it is the real-life story of the Monuments Men.


The Monuments Men, officially called the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives section (MFAA), were a small group of men and women tasked with the location, protection, conservation, and repatriation of the art, architecture, and material culture of European nations during and after World War II. The items under their protection included not only the monuments, fine arts, and archives of their name, but also books, jewelry, silver, gold, coins, porcelain, household objects, furniture, tapestries and rugs, religious items, antique armor, flags and regalia, musical instruments, natural science collections, artifacts of historical importance, fine wines, and even the coffins of several long-dead German heroes.


Although art-world insiders had began considering the issue earlier, the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives section was officially established in 1943 as a group of American and British military personnel with backgrounds in the arts; it operated under the jurisdiction of the Allied Military Government for Occupied Territories. Also involved were two government-sanctioned committees of civilian museum officials who acted in advisory roles – the Roberts Commission in the United States and the Macmillan Commission in England.1 Despite the enormity of its task, the MFAA was an extremely small group. Though it eventually included about 350 members, it counted fewer than one hundred throughout much of the period with the most time-sensitive work to be done.2 Many Monuments Men were influential members of the artistic community both before and after the war. The MFAA included in its ranks future director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art James Rorimer, New York City Ballet co-founder Lincoln Kirstein, leaders of museums such as the Museum of Modern Art and the National Gallery of Art, and professors at Harvard, Princeton, and Yale, among others.3


It would have been impossible for such a small corps to convince military leaders to care about the preservation of historic architecture in the middle of the twentieth century’s greatest conflict if one such leader had not already been on their side. Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was himself an amateur artist, issued a series of orders requiring the protection of monuments during battle. Eisenhower was clear that the outcome of battles and the welfare of soldiers must be prioritized over the preservation of history, but he was firm in his assertion that much destruction was unnecessary.


“If we have to choose between destroying a famous building and sacrificing our own men, then our men’s lives count infinitely more and the buildings must go. But the choice is not always so clear-cut as that. In many cases the monuments can be spared without any detriment to operational needs. Nothing can stand against the argument of military necessity. That is an accepted principle. But the phrase ‘military necessity’ is sometimes used where it would be more truthful to speak of military convenience or even of personal convenience.”

(Orders from General Dwight D. Eisenhower to all Allied Force commanders, dated December 29, 1943.)


Eisenhower’s orders were the most powerful, and often the only, tool available to the Monuments Men when it came to dealing with uncooperative military personnel, as the MFAA itself had very little authority. Even with such orders, unfortunately, some buildings could not be saved. In February 1944, Allied troops bombed the ancient Monte Cassino monastery during the campaign in Southern Italy. Allied leaders believed Monte Cassino to be a hiding place for German soldiers and characterized the total destruction of the monastery as an example of military necessity. The monastery turned out to have been empty of enemy combatants, though full of art and books, and the ensuing public relations nightmare contributed greatly to convincing Allied leaders that a dedicated monuments protection unit was a necessity.4


Often, the Monuments Men’s primary concern was buildings, as their nickname implied. As Allied armies fought to regain control of conquered nations, they found thousands of years of history in their way – literally – in the form of architectural icons such as churches, museums, palaces, castles, manor houses, and other historic government and civic buildings. Many such buildings became casualties of war as they were hit by bombs, caught fire, bulldozed, booby trapped, or otherwise damaged in the violence. In an attempt to mitigate the destruction, the MFAA put together lists of “protected” monuments in and around battle zones. There were 210 listed in Normandy alone.5 Yet destruction was sometimes unavoidable. The brutal Allied assault on Saint-Lô in Normandy destroyed a town full of medieval history but contributed greatly to Allied victory in France.Others monuments were put at risk when they were used as military offices, storehouses, and staging areas. Monuments Man James Rorimer intervened when he found the famous Tuileries Gardens being used as a parking lot.6 In some instances, Monuments Men were successful in promoting respect for monuments by distributing pamphlets on their history and cultural importance.


While local architects and engineers attempted to repair damaged buildings, the Monuments Men turned their attention to the countless objects that had gone missing or been displaced during the war. Much in the way of art and cultural heritage had been stolen by the Nazis during occupation – taken from museums, houses of worship, and other cultural sites throughout Europe, as well as from the collections of Jewish families and anyone else who had anything Nazi leaders coveted for their personal collections and planned state museums. Many of the best pieces were claimed by Hitler for a massive personal museum intended for his birthplace of Linz, Austria. During the war, the Nazis hid their ill-gotten gains through Europe, and the Monuments Men were responsible for tracking them down. Time was of the essence. Many Nazi leaders attempted to move or destroy their stashes as they became increasingly aware that defeat was inevitable. The Altausse salt mine in Austria, which housed some of the most significant works to be stolen during the war, only narrowly escaped the complete destruction ordered by a particularly fanatical Nazi official.7 Additionally, looting by both soldiers and civilians was rampant, and the Soviet Red Army was eager to exact retribution from the Germans in the form of art and artifacts. The issue of looted works still being held in Russian museums is highly controversial today. A team led by Monuments Men Robert Posey and Lincoln Kirstein only had about two weeks to move the entire contents of the massive Altausse mine, including a Michelangelo, two Vermeers, the Ghent Altarpiece, and many other important works, before the area officially fell under Soviet control.8 Also needing recovery were many European museum collections that had been sent away to be protected from bombs and Nazis alike. Italian, German, and Austrian museums all evacuated their collections to bomb-proof locations. Curators at the Louvre Museum in Paris moved much of their holdings to French country estates, most excitingly transporting Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa in a sealed ambulance. The Hermitage museum in Saint Petersburg literally took its collections underground, storing them in tunnels under the museum, and even the National Gallery in Washington D.C. took the precaution of moving important works into the countryside.9 Much of the missing art was found underground, particularly in mines throughout Germany and Austria. Elsewhere, storehouses had been set up in churches and monasteries, private country homes, and castles, including the famous nineteenth-century Neuchwanstein castle in Bavaria.10


Once lost objects had been successfully located, they had to be moved out of these storage places, often utilizing makeshift packing materials and rickety freight elevators, and transported to MFAA-established collection points in Munich, Wiesbaden, and Offenbach for identification and cataloging. MFAA personnel had to identify the owner of each object and then arrange for shipment back to the appropriate nation. Even with an increased staff, this project took six years simply because of the vast number of objects and storehouses to be dealt with. Packed to the eaves with art and supplied with full art reference libraries, collection points resembled makeshift museums and sometimes even hosted exhibitions.11


In the decades since World War II, many additional lost works have been found and returned, some of which had changed hands multiple times and circumnavigated the globe. Yet many objects remain unaccounted for, and others are involved in custody disputes. Organizations such as the Art Loss Register (artloss.com) and law enforcement agencies are still working to track them down. The list of artifacts saved by the Monuments Men is truly impressive in both quantity and importance, including paintings by masters such as van Eyck, Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Raphael, Vermeer, Monet, Cezanne, Manet, and Rubens, to name just a key few. Although it may not seem so from seeing them now, many of the works that hang on the walls of prominent museums like the Louvre in Paris and the Uffizi in Florence were stolen or hidden away and spent several years in deep underground vaults or remote castles. However, the Monuments Men Foundation for the Preservation of Art’s “Most Wanted” list of art still missing (monumentsmenfoundation.org/join-the-hunt/most-wanted-works-of-art) includes works by Botticelli, Caravaggio, Cezanne, El Greco, Monet, Raphael, Rubens, Van Gogh, and others. Some may still resurface, but many others will certainly not. German museum collections housed in one of Berlin’s defensive flak towers, including paintings by Caravaggio, Rubens, and Bellini, burned in a fire of unknown origin towards the war’s end. The immensely historic German town of Aachen, once home to Charlemagne, was essentially flattened. Many important Polish and Russian museums and other monuments were partially or completely destroyed out of sheer ethnic hatred.12 The search for missing masterpieces goes on, but were it not for that small, mighty group of art-world heroes nicknamed the Monuments Men, that search might never have even begun.


Click here for a review of The Monuments Men movie.


NOTES (1) For a more comprehensive account of the formation of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives section, see Edsel, Robert. The Monuments Men. New York: Back Bay Books, 2009, 50-65. (2) Ibid. xiv. (3) Edsel. The Monuments Men. 415-418. Edsel, Robert M. Rescuing Da Vinci. Dallas: Laurel Publishing, LLC, 2006. 129 and https://www.monumentsmenfoundation.org/the-heroes/the-monuments-men. (4) Edsel. The Monuments Men. 45-48. Edsel. Rescuing Da Vinci. 262-263. (5) Edsel. The Monuments Men. 64. (6) Ibid. 83-85 (Saint- Lô) & 123 (the Tuileries). (7) Edsel. The Monuments Men. 239-241, 305-308, & 373-381. (8) The evacuation of Altausse is described in Edsel. The Monuments Men. 382-387. (9) See Edsel. The Monuments Men. 124-126 and Edsel. Rescuing Da Vinci. 49-85. (10) The story of how the stolen art was found in a variety of unlikely storehouses would fuel several adventure movies all by itself. It is excellently told in The Monuments Men and depicted in Rescuing Da Vinci, 152-205. (11) Edsel. Rescuing Da Vinci. 207-225 and Edsel. The Monuments Men. 391-400. (12) Edsel. The Monuments Men. 140-145 (Aachen) & 354-355 (Friedrichshain Flaktower). Edsel. Rescuing Da Vinci. 259-289.


Also see Nicolas, Lynn. The Rape of Europa. New York: Vintage, 1995 and the documentary based on it, Berge. Richard, and Bonni Cohen. The Rape of Europa. Dallas: Agon Arts & Entertainment. 2008.