Published: July 3, 2001
America’s Great Art Rescue:
By Bob Jackman
This July Fourth we reflect on American heroes and take special pride in those Americans who conducted the greatest art rescue in the history of civilization. In recent years, numerous articles have focused on a handful of artworks that were not rescued and repatriated by Allied forces. The bigger story is that over five million art objects were recovered, researched, and returned to the country where they had been owned prior to World War II.
The Monuments, Fine Art, and Archives Service (MFA&A) unit of the US Army rescued thousands of European masterpieces that comprised the core of the Western artistic tradition. Nazi forces eventually looted most museums and major collections from Paris to St Petersburg. Americans often recovered these works in large Nazi storage depots outside their rightful nation.
By 1951, most had been returned to their legitimate pre-Nazi era nations, institutions or private owners. Most Nazi-looted art that was never returned was stored in eastern Germany that was conquered by the Soviet Army.
Created in response to colossal art looting, the MFA&A program embodied a revolutionary concept of wartime responsibilities. Until the MFA&A program was instituted in 1943, the world had accepted the concept that to the victor belong the spoils. Conquering nations have historically looted the artistic wealth of defeated nations. Victorious troops have often left a scorched path of destruction.
The intent of the MFA&A was high-minded and ambitious. For the first time in history, a conquering army recognized a responsibility to preserve the art of the conquered nation and to return that art to previously looted owners. The program attempted to reverse damage inflicted by Nazi plunders of neighboring nations and even on domestic German institutions and people. Nazi art looting was the most extensive in history, even dwarfing the Napoleonic plunder against which Nazis often railed. The MFA&A was assigned the most ambitious art rescue in the history of civilization, and it succeeded brilliantly.
Art Rescue by American Troops
Most Nazi art repositories were concealed, and defended, and some were booby-trapped. In The Faustian Bargain, historian Jonathan Petropoulos reported that Nazi leaders such as Martin Bormann had issued instructions to field personnel to destroy artworks and also the archives that identified the rightful owners of the works. Those commands triggered conflict within Nazi ranks and produced chaos in the field.
Thousands of masterpieces were stored in Alt Aussee salt mines, and German SS units had installed eight 500-kilogram aerial bombs to destroy the mines and artwork. That threatened the future livelihood of local families in the one-industry town. Pragmatic middle level German officials, perhaps anticipating the Nazi collapse and aware of Allied intentions to prosecute war criminals, channeled weapons to local forces who held off the SS forces, and prevented the detonation of the bombs. Time and again, American forces entered repositories facing similar situations. The initial recovery from at each location imperiled men.
Sometimes members of the resistance provided the Allies with information about art stashes, and that information was forwarded to the MFA&A. A key art figure in the French resistance was Louvre curator Rose Valland. Craig Smyth recounted her contribution in his book Repatriation of Art from the Collecting Point in Munich After World War II.
When Germans took control of the Louvre, Valland gave the appearance of assisting the Germans as she stayed on to provide the Nazis with information about the collection. However, she channeled information about Nazi operations to the resistance, and eventually that reached James Rorimer of MFA&A.
In April 1945, he was on the front and secured repositories identified by Valland as American forces advanced to those stashes. His quick action enabled him to secure the Neuschwanstein castle, “the most spectacular of all repositories.” In addition to artwork, he captured a systematic catalog of the art, and two Nazi art experts. Those led to more discoveries.
At times the bartering of artworks became a precious card in the game of peace negotiations as Lynn Nicholas related in her book The Rape of Europa. By late 1942 it was clear to Hitler that his chief ally, Benito Mussolini of Italy was losing power, and his collapse would leave Nazi forces exposed on the southern front. Hitler dispatched General Wolff to Italy. When the Italian king removed Mussolini from power and arrested him, Wolff descended with German troops in an effort to hold Italy. During that holding operation, art looting commenced, particularly in Florence.
Once artwork left Florence, Allied forces were not able to determine its location. Wolff’s German Army was able to continue holding substantial Italian ground into the spring of 1945, but he recognized that his situations was increasing vulnerable as Hitler’s health and military position declined. In February 1945 Wolff proposed an Italian peace meeting in a message to US diplomat Allen Dulles located in Switzerland, and they met March 8. By April negotiations were in gridlock because Hitler was demanding a fight to the end and the Russians wanted the Allies to insist upon an unconditional surrender that would enable them to split the spoils of war.
On April 20 negotiations broke off, and should have triggered the fight to the end. However before leaving the meeting, Wolff handed Dulles a handwritten note stating the location of looted Italian art treasures, and an inventory that included many works the Allies had not yet realized were looted. He suggested the US Army be dispatched to these locations. Army units secured the art treasures, and on the basis of good will established by Wolff’s gesture, four days later the Italian peace accord was signed. The treaty was announced to the world eight days later on May 2, 1945. The German use of a goodwill card that played on the American desire to preserve the art history of the Western World ultimately saved lives on the Italian front.
From Inspired Thought to a Full Program
Soon after the Nazi rise to power in 1933, American art scholars received information that the National Socialists were as much a cultural organization as a political organization. The top half dozen Nazi leaders shared an obsession for traditional German art and viciously attacked modernism as degenerate. Long before foreign hostilities erupted, Nazis used intimidation within Germany to extort traditional works and to suppress and destroy modern works. Interpreting the Nazi climate, some German art experts immigrated to America. Two of the most brilliant were Jakob Rosenberg and Seymour Slive who became art professors at Harvard University. They provided the scholarly community with addition insight into the Nazi art program.
Unlike art scholars, the wider American society was unaware of the Nazi interest in the arts. Scholars sent American publishers articles about Nazi attacks on modern art, but publishers declined to print the material because it was too controversial. Nazi supporters included major public figures such as pilot Charles Lindberg and artist Rockwell Kent, and publishers did not want to cross them. In The Rape of Europa Lynn Nicholas documented that NOMA director Alfred Barr wrote three articles in 1933 addressing the National Socialists attitude toward art, but major magazines declined to publish them because they were deemed too controversial. Only one article was published, and that was in an obscure magazine.
The MFA&A seed spouted in the brain of Professor George Stout, the shy director of Harvard’s Straus Conservation Center with dual expertise in art and science. His seed was nurtured by a former Wall Street banker turned art professor Paul Sachs who enlisted support of other Harvard graduates such as John Walker, director of the National Gallery of Art, and President Franklin Roosevelt. After the plan received authorization, George Stout scooted along battlefronts of Western Europe implementing the program in the field.
Days after Pearl Harbor, George Stout proposed the formation of an America unit to rescue Nazi-looted art and return it to the rightful owners. Harvard art professor Paul Sachs and Metropolitan Museum director Francis Taylor were enthused by the proposal, and over the next two years they pushed it forward within the halls of power. In August 1943, President Roosevelt signed legislation creating the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in War Areas. Since Supreme Court justice Owen Roberts chaired the commission, the commission became known as the Roberts Commission. The commission immediately created the MFA&A team within the US Army.
The commission was responsible for selecting personnel to serve in the MFA&A, and they immediately chose the 46-year old George Stout who had re-enlisted in the US Navy. The commission also requested that England and the USSR form similar units. The British formed a unit, but the Soviets did not.
Initially, the MFA&A was a small, high-level, rather secretive organization. MFA&A officers participated in Eisenhower’s planning stage of the Allied return to the continent. In 1988 Craig Smyth wrote, “In northern Europe, for the first time in war, the protection of cultural material was fully incorporated into the armed forces from the very outset of the military campaign.”
In planning D-Day and the campaign across Europe, the Roberts Commission coordinated between art scholars, intelligence agencies, and the army. They mapped known locations of art repositories and forwarded the maps to the army. The army attempted to create plans that would avoid engaging in bombing and battles in the vicinity of these repositories.
While Western Europe was an active battle ground, primary roles of the MFA&A were to locate, stabilize, and protect artworks, archives, and monuments. In the field, Bancel LaFarge, George Stout, James Rorimer, Robert Posey, and a handful of other art experts raced from one cache to the next discovery. A handbook entitled First-aid Protection of Arts and Monuments by George Stout provided guidance on proper stabilization of artworks, proper packing practices, and such. As the Allies advanced, there were many more art repositories than anticipated, and the MFA&A team was severely understaffed. When team members traveled from stash to stash they sometimes conserved time and gas by driving along the front. At times this was fatal.
By March 1945 the outcome of the war was clear, and the Roberts Commission began looking ahead toward the transition to peace. They foresaw a transition with an expanded role for the MFA&A, and a need for more personnel. Additional qualified art experts who had been serving with other military units were immediately transferred to the MFA&A. One of those was Dr. Craig Hugh Smyth who had worked at National Gallery of Art in 1941 and part of 1942 until being activated in the Naval Reserve. He served some time at sea, but his two longer stations were as a drill officer – first at Newport Naval Training Base and then at the New York Midshipmen School.
In a recent interview, Craig Smyth commented, “I do not recall knowing about the MFA&A until I was assigned to it. Some of the people at the MFA&A knew me from my time with the National Gallery, but I do not believe I knew about that particular program.”
Smyth was immediately assigned the task of establishing a collecting point in Munich. This was necessary as the MFA&A role expanded in peacetime to include custody, ownership research, and return of looted objects. Collecting points were needed because Nazi-looted art was in hundreds of scattered repositories that could not be properly secured and some of which had environmental conditions unsuited for art storage. Collecting points were designed to be huge depositories with stable environmental conditions that could be properly secured. At the collecting point, major works of art were conserved, and tens of thousands of works were photographed. All works were researched. Some went directly back to their pre-war museum or owner, and all others went back to the nation from which they had been looted.
As the volume of material continued to swell, it became necessary to establish three additional collecting points. These were established at Marburg, Wiesbaden, and Offenbach. Each was originally designated to handle specific material. Marburg handled works from the mines at Siegen and Bernterode. Wiesbaden focused on German-owned art, and a great deal of that was found in Merkers and the Frankfurt museums. Offenbach focused principally on books and archives and particularly those from Holland. These new collecting points adopted Smyth’s cataloging system and in general followed practices that he introduced at Munich.
Craig Smyth returned to the States in April 1946. Scholars working for the Presidential Advisory Commission on Holocaust Assets in the United States estimated that ultimately over five million objects were cleared through the American collecting points and returned to the pre-World War II museum, owner, or nation.
Smyth Calls for a Future Program
Experts are concerned about the fate of art in future conflicts. Dr Craig Hugh Smyth addressed the April 29, 2000 provenance conference sponsored by the International Foundation for Art Research (IFAR). IFAR is one of the major forums for art scholarship in the world, and Smyth used the podium to deliver an important suggestion. He urged the creation of a permanent unit within the US Army that would conduct a program similar to MFA&A in future conflicts. He also suggested it would be appropriate for other nations and even the United Nations to have such units.
The MFA&A staff was very small during World War II, and remained relatively small during the post-war years. The team was kept small by having the regular US Army provided logistical support including security, transportation, handling, communications, and photography. The advantage of this arrangement was that a structured, discipline workforce with basic ancillary skills was immediately available to art specialists. The disadvantage was that individual soldiers were briefly posted to the art recovery project and then assigned elsewhere. Those constant reassignments forced the MFA&A staff to conduct frequent trainings, particularly for security forces.
In a recent interview Craig Smyth reiterated his belief that the arrangement of placing the MFA&A in the army had worked successfully in World War II, and that he would like to see such a unit incorporated into the army in future conflicts. The soundness of including an art unit within the army rather than establishing a totally independent unit can be demonstrated by examining the functioning of one specialized service, the photographers.
Each army division had a small photographic unit backed by specialized logistical support that kept them supplied with cameras, darkroom equipment, film, print paper, and processing chemicals while the main army provided food, transportation and sometimes shelter. Those photographers had experienced moving within an area and providing images for a variety of purposes. When MFA&A personnel arrived on the field, they became one more team that needed photographic documentation, and army photographers stretched to successfully accommodate that need.
Army photographers rapidly adapted from wartime to peacetime roles such as taking MFA&A photographs. For example, in April 1945 Lieutenant Chester Jackman of the 82nd Airborne Division was focused on reconnaissance photos identifying military assets, bombing damage, and such. By June 1945 he was photographically documenting the condition of Belgium and German monuments, churches, and public buildings. Orders for photography arrived, and the shift in focus occurred literally within hours. When an art stash was discovered, an available photographer stationed in the area handled the assignment.
The alternative to having the MFA&A within the army would have been an independent MFA&A. That would have required separate photographers, photographic supply personnel, billeting arrangements, etc. At the front, specialized photographers would have needed to move hundreds of miles from one art stash to the next, and also to move all their supplies and equipment. Such an arrangement would have wasted time and reduced output.
Following the establishment of the four collecting points, the MFA&A implemented a program to photograph many individual artworks under essentially studio conditions. Army Signal Corps photographers were assigned that task. The MFA&A were provided photographic skills and materials without needing to supervise the logistical maze of keeping the corps supplied. Similar services were also available for other logistical support such as security, transportation, handling, and communications.
When MFA&A scrapbooks and GI scrapbooks from the eighteen months after the war are examined, many scrapbooks are found to hold the same images. Army photographers had the negatives, and after the German surrender in May 1945 photo print paper became more available from Washington. The average GI did not have camera or access to a darkroom with supplies. Army photographers filled that need. They printed multiple images from a single negative, and those were distributed almost as informal awards.
A second reason for incorporating an art rescue and recovery unit within the US Army is decision-making. The MFA&A team found surprises to be a constant at the battlefront, and there was a need to have officers skilled in art and decision-making at the front to handle those surprises.
Under the best of conditions intelligence reports indicated the location of art stashes, but even in those instances there were unanticipated developments. A single salt mine has multiple openings for air circulation and other purposes, but only a few serve as human entrances. Some mine entrances were booby trapped with explosives. Some stashes were found in moist conditions that supported the growth of mold that attacked the art. Artwork was sometimes found intermingled with people, paper money, or gold bullion. No two situations were the same, and quick, informed field decisions were necessary.
If an art rescue unit is incorporated into the Army, it will be able to focus upon the special activities of its task – locating, stabilizing, packing, identifying and returning looted art. A small organization with decisions makers on the front can concentrate on those activities.
The alternative would be to establish a totally separate art recovery unit that could provide all its own services. Such a unit would need to split its attention among all the roles mentioned above (transportation, billeting, supplies, quartermasters, security, photography, etc), and that would require a large bureaucracy based in the Washington, D.C. area. Decision-making would be based in Washington, and experts on the front would loose valuable time waiting for decisions.
Craig Smyth raised a serious issue when he called for creating a permanent unit within the US Army with responsibility to rescue art treasures during future conflicts. Hopefully his call will stimulate further consideration of this subject.
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