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Saved from the salt mines: Part II of rediscovering an incredible 1948 exhibition of art stolen by Nazis

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A story in the MIA Bulletin from August 28, 1948, announces the upcoming “Berlin Masterpieces” exhibition. Minneapolis Institute of Art Archives

Last week, I recounted how a phone call launched a research project deep into the archives of the MIA, where I uncovered information about a 1948 exhibition of Berlin paintings saved by Monuments Men from the salt mines of Germany and Austria. Here’s part II: the story of how the paintings ended up in the salt mines to begin with, and how they eventually came to Minneapolis.

In 1933, Adolf Hitler forced out Max J. Friedländer, then the director of the Kaiser-Friedrich-Museum, in Berlin, and replaced him with one Nazi agent after another. Hitler removed many German paintings from the museum and installed them in his residences and retreats. He also exchanged works from the collection for more German paintings—“trading up,” I think, in his mind. According to the Art News booklet dedication to this exhibition, more than 500 paintings from the Kaiser-Friedrich-Museum and the Nationalgalerie were moved in 1939 into the salt mines at Merkers and the flak tower, Flakturm Friedrichshain, in Berlin. But as the Allies closed in, retreating Germans sought to destroy the works, and in some cases succeeded. As Berlin was liberated, in 1945, the flak tower was set aflame and all of the works inside were destroyed.

The United States Third Army discovered the paintings in the salt mines in April, 1945, and moved them to the Central Art Collection Point in Wiesbaden. In December, 1946, 202 of the most important paintings from this cache were sent to the United States for further protection. They were held in storage at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. This export and storage of Berlin masterpieces was widely and loudly opposed—the Wiesbaden Manifesto, which protested this military decision, was written and signed by many MFA&A officers (Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives—the Monuments Men), the very officers whose duty was to find, protect, and return cultural treasures during the war. President Truman gave his word that these paintings were not being confiscated, but rather safely protected in the U.S. for the time being.

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An announcement in the MIA Bulletin from October 9, 1948, describes the “Berlin Masterpieces” show as including “the cream of one of Europe’s great pre-war museums.” Minneapolis Institute of Art Archives

In 1948, General Lucius Clay, who had originally requested the removal of the paintings from Berlin, asked that the paintings be returned to Germany. Conditions in Wiesbaden and Munich, another collection point, had improved and, in any case, returning the works would prove the good faith of the U.S.. Almost immediately, the National Gallery of Art mounted a brief exhibition of all 202 works.

During the exhibition, public concern mounted against returning the paintings—it was feared that the collection, once back in Germany, could end up in Russian hands. Some also believed it was necessary for the American public to see the paintings, rescued with American blood, before they returned to Berlin.  The Army agreed to a traveling exhibition to 12 leading U.S. museums (Portland was added later, making a baker’s dozen):

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A visitor’s guide to the exhibition. Minneapolis Institute of Art Archives

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Philadelphia Museum of Art
Art Institute of Chicago
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Detroit Institute of Arts
Cleveland Museum of Art
Minneapolis Institute of Art
Portland Art Museum
M.H. de Young Memorial Museum, San Francisco
Los Angeles County Museum of History, Science, and Art
City Art Museum of St. Louis
Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh
Toledo Museum of Art

But the Army had some conditions:

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Invitations to the member preview event. Minneapolis Institute of Art Archive

1) Fifty of the most fragile works should return to Germany immediately (52 were selected and sent home)
2) Another 50 works should be returned during the tour
3) Admission should be charged to raise funds for the German Children’s Relief Fund
4) Two German curators should be selected, one to oversee the works being returned home and the second to accompany the paintings during their entire U.S. tour

A deal was struck. The paintings traveled 12,000 miles across the country, met with celebration and publicity wherever they were shown, particularly in Minneapolis. Newspapers mentioned the paintings every day during the show. Television interviews were recorded at the MIA. Radio stations continually promoted the exhibitions. Hundreds of signs were put up in department stores, hotels, shops, country clubs, transit stations, and elsewhere. A parade was held in Minneapolis (alas, not usually standard practice for exhibitions), headed by a military band, as soldiers and armored vehicles accompanied the paintings from the Great Northern Station to the museum.

In just two weeks, the exhibition drew a record 108,208 visitors to the MIA, including many who had never been to the museum before.

Every day of the exhibition was filled with events. Look at this ambitious calendar!

Calendar of Events

Minneapolis Institute of Art Archive

[Click on the above image to enlarge photo]

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Exhibition passes signed by then-Director Russell A. Plimpton. Minneapolis Institute of Art Archives

The importance of this exhibition was understood throughout the state and the country—Ann Pflaum grasped it even as a young girl. An estimated 7 million Americans saw the show, and the 30-cent admission netted $190,000 to help children in the American Zone of Germany, including vaccinations, bedding, winter clothing, carpentry tools, and machines for vocational education. The German curator who accompanied the paintings saw them depart from the New York harbor for Germany in April, 1949, four years after they were removed from the salt mines.

The photo at the top of the post shows the line outside the Toledo Museum of Art in 1949, when a hundred thousand people saw the Berlin Masterpieces show there in 10 days.

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The record-setting attendance for “Berlin Masterpieces” is announced in the MIA Bulletin from December 18, 1948. Minneapolis Institute of Art Archives

Thanks to Ann Pflaum for sharing her memories of this exhibition and launching my research down the rabbit hole; Erika, my Paintings colleague, curator, and provenance specialist, for encouraging me to write this story and answering my history questions; Laura, in Exhibitions, for handing over the tome of historic exhibitions, Jessica and Janice, in the MIA’s library, for helping me with the exhibition catalogs, MIA Bulletins, and the amazing archival records for this exhibition; Megan, in Registration, for showing me the incoming loan records that listed all of these wonderful paintings, and to Tim, the editor, for helping me tell this story .