The NCMA’s Monuments Men

The current film The Monuments Men, largely based on the books of Robert Edsel, is bringing new attention to a little-known aspect of World War II when extraordinary art was stolen, hidden away, and even destroyed on a massive scale. Regardless of the critical response to the film, the actual Monuments Men were indisputably successful, and like so many art collections around the world, our NCMA is better for their efforts.

From the beginning of the war, Adolf Hitler and the Nazis implemented a systematic plan to acquire the best art in Europe, specifically for the future Führermuseum or Leader’s Museum in Hitler’s hometown of Linz, Austria. They targeted masterpieces in all the major museums and collections in Europe. Thousands of German soldiers were put to the job, locating and confiscating millions of pieces of art. Much of the best work, mainly Old Masters, ended up in the personal collections of Hitler, his right-hand man Hermann Goering, and other members of the Nazi elite. Their plan also included the destruction of what they considered “degenerate” art, which encompassed virtually all modern art such as that of Picasso, Dali, Matisse, Van Gogh, and German artists such as Ernst, Klee, Nolde, and Kirchner. Much art was destroyed, but, ironically, the more valuable “degenerate” works were kept by the Nazis for their collections or were sold outside of Germany for personal gain.

A perfect example of the art they coveted can be found at the NCMA in Madonna and Child in a Landscape by Lucas Cranach the Elder, circa 1518. The German Old Master’s work was highly valued. In 1940 the painting was stolen from Philipp von Gomperz, a Jewish collector in Vienna, and ended up in the possession of Baldur von Schirach, wartime governor of Vienna and leader of the Hitler Youth. After the war the painting was sold on the art market, unrecognized for its past, and was eventually donated to the NCMA. After the full history of the painting was revealed in 2000, the NCMA formally purchased the painting from Gomperz’s descendants.

The Monuments, Fine Art, and Archives program (MFAA), or “Monuments Men,” was created in the last years of World War II. It was a special unit tasked with identifying cultural treasures in the war zone and protecting them. As the war ended, the MFAA’s work turned to identifying stolen art and returning it to its rightful owners if possible. Initially the group was small, less than a dozen men, but ultimately 345 men and women from 13 countries served in the MFAA for up to six years. Most of them were volunteers and far older than the average enlisted person. Museum directors, curators, historians, artists, and conservators were tasked with no less than preserving the world’s artistic cultural heritage, something no army had done before on that scale.

In the end the MFAA saved untold numbers of churches, historic buildings, and monuments from destruction; restituted 5 million works of art including works by Michelangelo, Vermeer, and Leonardo da Vinci; and were instrumental in reestablishing the cultural life of Europe. Their work continues to enrich us today.

One painting at the NCMA is known to have passed through the hands of the MFAA. Our St. Leonard (German, Circle of Pleydenwurff, circa 1460, currently not on view) was stolen from a collector in Paris and appropriated by Hermann Goering. Near the end of the war, the MFAA removed it from Goering’s Veldenstein Castle and sent it on to the Munich Central Collecting Point, one of two main distribution centers for art restitution. The painting was returned to Paris in 1947. A decade later it was purchased for the Kress Collection and subsequently donated to the NCMA.

Records show that the NCMA’s painting Young Man with a Sword (Dutch, Circle of Rembrandt, circa 1633–45) was restituted through the Stichting Nederlandsch Kunstbezit (SNK), the Netherlands’ version of the MFAA. The SNK and MFAA were close collaborators. The painting was later purchased by Kress and donated to the NCMA.

Practically every major museum in Europe and the U.S. has similar stories. But as extraordinary as the MFAA’s achievements were, an untold amount of art escaped their effort. Certainly some art was destroyed, purposefully or as collateral damage of war. Like our Cranach, some works were stolen and hidden or sold. Surprisingly, art continues to come to light, such as the nearly 1,400 works discovered in 2012 in a Munich apartment.

But the contributions of the Monuments Men didn’t end with the war. Many went on to long careers, and a few helped create the modern museum as we know it. As an art conservator, I’m especially interested in two of them:

George Stout is the basis for George Clooney’s character in the movie. Essentially the MFAA sprang from Stout’s efforts, and he’s probably the one person who should get the most credit for it. But Stout was first a pioneer in the museum world, establishing the first science-based art conservation research facility in the U.S. at Harvard’s Fogg Museum. After the war he was founding president of the International Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works, creating the foundation of modern conservation in this country.

Certainly the conservation center at the NCMA is built on the work of George Stout, but a more direct link is through Monuments Man Sheldon Keck. To me Keck is the grandfather of modern conservation in the U.S., and his wife, Caroline, is the grandmother, a huge figure in American conservation in her own right. NCMA conservators Bill Brown, Noelle Ocon, and I are all products of their work.

Sheldon Keck graduated from Harvard in 1932 and served a conservation apprenticeship at the Fogg, no doubt under Stout’s eye. Keck joined the army in 1943 and was assigned to the MFAA. A letter to his wife on September 19, 1944, from “Somewhere in France” suggests that things started off slowly:

“Still know nothing about Arts & Monument and expect nothing. Don’t even believe the army knows that I’m supposed to be in it as I have been classified as a clerk since I left the States.”

His time with arts and monuments did come. He was with Stout in the first small group of the MFAA that followed the D-Day invasion of 1944 through France, Holland, and Belgium and into Germany. Unfortunately, at one point Keck and close friend Walter Huchthausen unwittingly drove their jeep behind enemy lines while pursuing an altarpiece that had been removed from a German town. Huchthausen was shot and killed, one of only two Monuments Men to die in action. In the movie the death of fictional French character Jean Claude Clermont (actor Jean Dujardin) is based on this incident. Later in life Keck rarely talked about the war; I assume that, as with many WWII vets, he simply found it too painful to relive.

After the war Sheldon and Caroline founded two of the three conservation training programs in the U.S. First Sheldon started the program at New York University, the first graduate-level conservation training program in the U.S. A few years later he started a conservation program for the State University of New York in Cooperstown, which subsequently relocated to Buffalo, N.Y. Bill Brown and Noelle Ocon are graduates of that program. I’ve worked with numerous people trained by the Kecks, including their son Larry Keck. I met Sheldon on several occasions. His calm, confident demeanor and approach to conservation is one I’ve always tried to emulate.

Is The Monuments Men a good film? I certainly enjoyed it, but then I love art and history and had a personal connection through Sheldon Keck. The movie has great actors and is loosely based on the facts. The actual Monuments Men were personally committed to the preservation of art before, during, and after the war. They felt they were simply doing their duty, were incredibly humble, and returned to their normal lives without much fanfare. Seventy years later we have nearly forgotten what they did for us. The movie and the growing number of books on the subject serve to remind us of their extraordinary achievements and the gratitude we should have for them.

Perry Hurt is associate conservator at the NCMA.

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