Saved from the salt mines, part I: A phone call sparks the rediscovery of a historic MIA exhibition that captivated the country


Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn, “Self-Portrait with Velvet Beret,” 1634, oil on oak wood, Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

On February 28, I received a voice mail from Ann Pflaum, the University of Minnesota historian. With all the recent talk of the Monuments Men and looted art during World War II, Ann recalled seeing an exhibition at the MIA of paintings rescued from the salt mines of Germany and Austria. Only it wasn’t a recent show—it was in the 1940s or ’50s, she thought, right after the end of the war.

It would hardly seem possible. Thousands of artworks had been collected in Munich by the Monuments Men, starting in 1945. They needed to be cataloged, their owners tracked down, the works repatriated. How could any of them have come to Minneapolis just a few years later?


Sandro Botticelli, “Portrait of Simonetta Vespucci,” c. 1476, tempera on wood, Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

I brought it up with my colleagues, and soon the administrator of exhibitions excitedly handed me a tome with the label, “Exhibitions: 1883–1986.” I leafed through the massive book, and on the page for 1948 exhibitions I grinned as I read this title:

Berlin Masterpieces Saved from Salt Mines (under the supervision of U.S. Army)

November 2 – 17, 1948

This exhibition had been on view at the MIA, and for only two weeks. Ann’s memory had served her well.


Jan Vermeer van Delft, “Young Woman with a Pearl Necklace,” c. 1662, oil on canvas, Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

When I told her this, she revealed that she had been just 6 or 7 years old when she saw the exhibition. I was impressed that she came, much less remembered. Today’s exhibitions are up for around 15 weeks and I still have trouble getting to them. Ann didn’t remember specific works, but she recalled gray helmets, possibly photographs, and, in a later email, “What I do recall was a great sense of the rescue of works from the salt mines.” As we talked more, I learned that she attended the exhibition because it was very important to “Uncle Dick,” a.k.a. Richard S. Davis, a Monuments Man and then-MIA curator, future-MIA director.

The story deepened. The MIA’s Registration department and library staff, as intrigued as I was, dug into their archives and found the paperwork listing every painting that came to the MIA with this show. Seeing the artists and titles, handwritten across seven large pages, made my breath catch:


Edouard Manet, “In the Conservatory,” 1878-79, oil on canvas, Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin


In total, 96 paintings rescued from the salt mines, some of the greatest works of Western art, in the same exhibition. For art-lovers, it was an exhibition unlikely to be repeated (and it hasn’t). For a nation still reeling from the war, this was patriotic proof that it was worth it: civilization had been saved. No wonder the attendance was staggering for just a two-week engagement: 108,208.


“In the Conservatory” discovered in the vault at Merkers (National Archives,
5757184). This painting appears in the “The Monuments Men” movie, by the way!

The paintings, with the exception of the Manet and a Daumier, were from the Kaiser-Friedrich-Museum (renamed the Bode-Museum in 1956) in Berlin. The Manet and Daumier were from the Nationalgalerie in Berlin.

Little did I know that the story of how this art ended up in a salt mine and then traveled to the United States would be just as incredible as the works themselves. Stay tuned for Part II!

Top photo from Star Tribune archives at the Minnesota Historical Society.