Before and during the Second World War, the Nazis stole, looted and collected art from across Europe, plundering the best collections and galleries and hiding some of the most precious pieces in the Western canon across Nazi-occupied territory.
In 1943, the Allies established the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives programme in the hope of safeguarded works of artistic and historic importance from theft or destruction by the Nazis.
Largely comprised of scholars and curators, this group, nicknamed the ‘Monuments Men’ (although there were some women in their numbers) went on to ensure the safety and preservation of some of Europe’s finest artworks and collections, spending years after the war tracking down lost or missing pieces. Here are 10 facts about some of these remarkable men and women.
1. The original group had 345 members from 13 countries
At the outbreak of war, the last thing on the minds of politicians was the destruction and plunder of art and monuments in Europe: in America however, art historians and museum directors, like Francis Henry Taylor of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, were watching with the utmost concern as the Nazis began forcibly removing art from some of the continent’s greatest galleries and collections.
Eventually, after months of petitioning, the then President, Franklin D. Roosevelt, established a commission which would eventually in turn lead to the establishment of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives programme (MFAA). In order to have the best possible people on the team, they recruited members from across Europe and America, resulting in a group of 345 members of 13 different nationalities.
2. The Monuments Men did have a handful of women amongst them
Whilst the majority of the Monuments Men were indeed men, a few women did join their ranks, most notably Rose Valland, Edith Standen and Ardelia Hall. These three women were all experts in their field, scholars and academics who would play an invaluable role in locating and returning some of Europe’s lost masterpieces.
Valland worked in the Jeu de Paume museum in Paris and had secretly recorded the destinations and contents of major shipments of art towards Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe. After the war, her notes provided valuable intelligence for Allied forces.
3. During the war, their work was about safeguarding cultural treasures
Whilst war was raging in Europe, all that could be done by the Allies was to safeguard and protect the art and treasures still in their possession as best they could, particularly those which were in imminent danger from shellfire. They also assessed the damage done across Europe and marked out on maps sites of particular significance so that pilots could try and avoid bombing those areas.
As the tide turned and the Allies began to advance across Europe, the work of the Monuments Men began to expand. They were keen to ensure the Nazis didn’t destroy pieces as part of a scorched earth policy, and they also wanted to prevent armed fire from damaging anything as the Allies advanced.
4. High-ranking officers were concerned soldiers wouldn’t listen to the Monuments Men
Around 25 Monuments Men ended up on the front line during the Second World War in their efforts to protect and safeguard cultural treasures. High-ranking officers and politicians had been wary of letting this new task force loose in the field, believing teenage soldiers were unlikely to pay much attention to the pleas of middle-aged curators when Nazi-looted art was discovered.
By and large, they were wrong. Reports detail the care taken by the majority of soldiers when handling art. Many of them clearly understood the cultural and historic importance of some of the pieces in their possession and they took pains to ensure they wouldn’t damage them. The Monuments Men were well-respected and liked.
5. The Monuments Men located some key art repositories in Germany, Austria and Italy
In 1945, the remit of the Monuments Men expanded. They now had to find art which wasn’t just threatened by bombing and warfare but had been actively looted and hidden by the Nazis.
Thanks to valuable intelligence, huge treasure troves of looted art were found across Europe: notable repositories include those found at Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria, the salt mines in Altaussee (which included van Eyck’s famous Ghent Altarpiece) and in a jail in San Leonardo in Italy, which contained large quantities of art taken from the Uffizi in Florence.
6. Much of what was recovered belonged to Jewish families
Whilst the Monuments Men did recover plenty of famous pieces of art and sculpture, much of what they found were family heirlooms and valuables, confiscated from Jewish families before their deportation to concentration camps.
Lots of these pieces were claimed back by relatives and heirs, but plenty could not be traced to living heirs or descendants.
7. Huge collecting points were established to facilitate swift restitution
Some of what was recovered was easy to return: museum inventories, for example, allowed museums and cultural institutions to swiftly claim what was theirs and see it returned to its rightful place as fast as possible.
Collecting points were established in Munich, Wiesbaden and Offenbach, with each depot specialising in a particular type of art. They were functioning for several years following the end of the war and oversaw the return of millions of objects.
8. Over 5 million cultural artefacts were returned by the Monuments Men
Over the course of their existence, the Monuments Men are estimated to have returned around 5 million cultural artefacts to their rightful owners, both in Europe and the Far East.
9. The last Monuments Men left Europe in 1951
It took 6 years following the end of the war for the last Monuments Men to leave Europe and return to America. During this time, their number was depleted to around 60 people working in the field.
Their work helped restore priceless works of art to their rightful owners across the world. The 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict was in large part instigated thanks to the work of the Monuments Men and the awareness they raised over issues of cultural heritage.
10. Their work was largely forgotten for decades
For decades, the work of the Monuments Men was largely forgotten about. It was only in the late 20th century that there was a real renewed interest in their achievements and their role in ensuring the preservation and existence of the Western art canon as we know it.