The Monuments Men were given an impossible, well, monumental job—which of course is why their story makes for a great book and a great movie. If not set up to fail, exactly, they were certainly looking for needles in haystacks. In fact it’s hard to imagine a more sparsely staffed unit of the Allied war effort during World War II—345 men and women from 13 countries, among a force of 16.1 million from the United States alone—asked to cover such a great territory, basically the entire European continent, and then Japan after the war. Their mission was all the more noble for being doomed.
The trailer for George Clooney’s film sets the stage:
Here, we continue our in-depth exploration of works at the MIA connected to the Monuments Men and World War II. You’ll find Part I here.
5) The Piazza del Popolo, Rome (Johannes Lingelbach, c. 1660) On view in gallery 309
This genre scene by Lingelbach, a Dutch Golden Age painter, was one of thousands of artworks and other property taken by the Nazis from the Rothschilds, the wealthy Jewish banking family whose palatial homes throughout Europe were filled with artistic treasures. The Nazis reportedly took more than 6,000 items from their French estate alone. This painting came from the Vienna palace of Baron Alphonse von Rothschild and his wife, Baroness Clarice de Rothschild, who in 1938 were given safe passage out of Austria—in exchange for their art collection.
The MIA purchased the painting in 1960, and its journey up to then was relatively uncertain until nearly half a century later, when MIA paintings curator and provenance specialist Erika Holmquist-Wall spotted a telltale number on the back of the painting, near the red wax seal of the Rothschild family crest. It was the inventory number—AR844—used by Alphonse. At the National Archives in Washington, D.C., Holmquist-Wall searched through confiscated Nazi paperwork and found the same number in a Nazi inventory of art destined for the Führermuseum. The Nazis had seized the painting in 1938 and likely stored it in the Alt Ausee salt mines. The Monuments Men evidently recovered the work—the number shows up again on a list of artworks brought by the Allies to the Munich Central Collecting Point, or MCCP, where many of the recovered objects were sorted at the end of the war.
George Stout, the intrepid leader of the Monuments Men and the overseer of art handling procedures at the MCCP, was in civilian life a conservator at Harvard’s Fogg Art Museum. (“Time to put a team together,” Clooney, as Stout, tells Damon at the start of the film, “and do our best to protect buildings, bridges, and art before the Nazis destroy everything.”) In The Rape of Europa, the definitive book on Nazi looting, Stout is described as “the country’s greatest expert on the techniques of packing and evacuation.” Had he not already spent several years immersed in the ruins of Europe, he might have been appalled at the buildings chosen for the collecting point, which themselves seemed beyond repair. Occasionally, unseen explosives would detonate and at least one construction worker helping to rehab the premises was killed.
And yet, in two weeks the Monuments Men turned Hitler’s old administration buildings in Munich into viable warehouses. By 1951, six years after the end of the war, they had processed several million art objects and repatriated as many as possible—despite the lack of unified policy on Germany’s occupation and, in many cases, the lack of an owner for the art.
In the case of the Rothschilds, careful collectors that they were, the owners and the art were readily identifiable—when the art could be found. After the war, this painting was returned to Clarice, who sold it to a dealer in 1948. Alphonse had died in 1942 after living in exile in Bar Harbor, Maine, depressed about the loss of his fortune. Many of the Rothschilds’ artworks are still at large, with new discoveries turning up every so often.
6) The Union of Love and Friendship (Pierre-Paul Prud’hon, c. 1793) On view in gallery 306
That a painting celebrating love and friendship (and not a little nudity) was caught up in the genocidal rage of the Nazis is a bitter irony, if hardly alone in that regard among the confiscated images of saints and other compassionate figures.
Verifiable documentation has been hard to come by, but it appears the painting was commissioned by Saint-Marc Didot, one of a long line of arts and literary supporters in Paris, and was shown in the 1793 Paris Salon, possibly incomplete.
By 1865, it was in the collections of the Rothschild family in Vienna and likely suffered the same fate as the Lingelbach painting: surrendered to the Nazis in the 1930s and recovered by the Monuments Men, though this hasn’t been confirmed. The MIA acquired the work from a New York dealer in 1964.
7) St. Jerome (Adam Lenckhardt, c. 1635–38) On view in gallery 312
Lenckhardt was the court sculptor for Prince Karl Eusebius von Liechtenstein, and this work was once in the prince’s collection. Eventually, like several of the artworks on this list, it found its way into the Viennese palaces of the Rothschild family. It was included in the 1866 art inventory of Anselm Salomon von Rothschild, and may have been passed down to him by his father or grandfather.
The sculpture presumably was looted in 1938 along with the other artworks in the palaces, and recovered by the Monuments Men. After the war, the Rothschild family sold it, and it was subsequently purchased by the MIA from a New York gallery in 1957.
8) Dreidel (c. 1900) On view in gallery 362
It’s unclear where this ornate dreidel came from, only that it was in Europe at the time of Hitler’s conquests, when Jewish communities, especially throughout eastern Europe, were being razed. That it survived may be as much a testament to the Nazis’ perverse ideas about genocide as the Jewish communities’ careful regard for their ceremonial art and heritage.
As Jews were taken to concentration camps, their books, silver, linens, and other household property were taken and warehoused in Jewish museums and other buildings in their community—collected by the Nazis as intended reminders of an exterminated people.
With each mass deportation of Jews to the death camps, Jewish curators at these tiny museums throughout Eastern Europe—forced to document their own destruction—would receive tens of thousands of ceremonial objects. “The Nazis stored all this,” says Holmquist-Wall. “They kept it all.”
There was a single, grand exception to this communal theft. The Jewish community of Danzig, now Gdansk in Poland, was particularly prominent and prosperous, and, in late 1938, about nine months before the Nazis invaded, voted to save itself by dissolving itself. Half the Jews in Danzig had already fled. The remainder agreed to sell all their communal property to finance the emigration of everyone left. Then they boxed up 10 crates full of ceremonial objects and art and sent it to the Jewish Theological Seminary in Manhattan. Three months later, the Nazis invaded.
9) St. Paul and St. Barnabas at Lystra (Willem de Poorter, c. 1630) On view in gallery 311
At some point between 1940 and 1942, this painting was confiscated from the Jewish family of Jesaia Hakker, the head of a diamond trading firm based in Amsterdam. The looters weren’t Nazi soldiers. They were from the so-called “robber bank” of Lippmann, Rosenthal, and Co., often referred to as the Liro Bank. The Germans had taken the name of a well-known Jewish bank in Amsterdam for their clearinghouse there of Jewish property—a liquidation business—with the profits going to various German coffers. (The Liro decrees, issued in 1941 and 1942, required Jews in the Netherlands to register all assets and turn over all credit, securities, and currency to the Liro Bank.)
Many Dutch museums bought art from the Liro Bank, though MIA records suggest that this painting wound up in the hands of Hans Herbst, the German art dealer responsible for the planned Führermuseum in Austria.
It wasn’t until 1951 that the Dutch government recovered the painting from the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Austria. At the time, Dutch authorities asked the Hakker family to pay for the costs of recovery and registration, and they refused. “Fleeing to the U.S. caused us all financial hardship,” said a family representative many years later. “My father, who had been part of the Oranje Brigade and participated in the invasion from 1943 till well after the end of the war, had lost two brothers in Nazi concentration camps and was himself a prisoner in one of the early razzias in Amsterdam, did not feel able to deal with matters including the return of paintings.” The terms, he noted, had been unacceptable.
In 2006, the case was finally reopened at the family’s request. As noted in the restitution paperwork, “The ideas on financial conditions as imposed on the Hakker family at the time have since changed considerably.” The painting was returned, at no cost, and was sold several years later through a dealer to the MIA.
Watch for further Monuments Men stories here at MIA Stories in the coming weeks.