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Real Monuments men and women honored in fascinating Washington, D.C. exhibits

The real "Monuments Men" and women are being honored at Washington institutions that played major roles in the protection and rescue of European treasures during and after World War Two.

Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower inspects  art treasures looted by the Germans and stored in the Merkers, Germany salt mine. Gen. Omar N. Bradley (left), Gen George S. Patton, Jr (right).
Courtesy of the National Archives, Washington, D.C.

The National Archives, the Smithsonian's Archives of American Art, and the National Gallery of Art are hosting free exhibitions and related programs highlighting their respective roles in saving Europe's cultural heritage.

(And now, you can read online the personal correspondence of members of the Monuments Men held in the Smithsonian's Archives of American Art collection -- a 200-page project digitized recently by volunteers. The Smithsonian launched its massive Transcription Center on Aug. 12.)

These Monuments Men and women were in the U.S. Army's Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Section (MFAA). They included art curators, scholars, architects, librarians, and archivists from the United States and Great Britain.

They saved artistic and cultural treasures from being destroyed by bombs, and then by tracking down and recovering more than five million priceless works stolen by the Nazis. The Nazis stole much of this from Jewish families they sent to death camps, and hid the loot in salt mines, abandoned castles, and churches.

The massive looting ranged from art masterpieces like Michelangelo's "Madonna and Child" (Bruges Madonna); a full-sized cast of Rodin's "Burghers of Calais" that German soldiers had abandoned on a mountainside near Baden; the Ghent Altarpiece; Manet's "Wintergarden"; to billions of dollars in gold; and even a casket containing the remains of Frederick the Great.


  • Exhibit "The 'Hitler Albums'—Meticulously Documented Plunder". Now through Feb. 19, East Rotunda Gallery

The Third Reich’s Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR) was the main agency that systematically stole cultural treasures in Nazi-occupied countries. The ERR prepared many so-called "Hitler Albums" featuring the "best of looted art" for Hitler to view and select for his planned art museum in Linz, Austria, the Archives noted.

After the war, the U.S. Army discovered 39 of these albums hidden at the Neuschwanstein Castle, and turned them over to the Monuments Men. These volumes, now at the National Archives, served as evidence in the Nuremburg trials (click here for a video) to document the massive Nazi art looting operations.

The missing ERR albums were thought to have been destroyed during the last days of World War Two. But additional albums were recovered and donated to the National Archives, thanks to the efforts of Robert M. Edsel, President of the Monuments Men Foundation for the Preservation of Art, and also author of "The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History", basis of the film.

An album on special display was donated by Edsel in 2012. All of the albums at the National Archives have been digitized and can be viewed online.

  • Panel Discussion: The Monuments Men with Robert Edsel. Feb. 19 at 7 P.M., William G. McGowan Theater

Robert Edsel has dedicated years to painstaking research about the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program, and has written several books including "Greatest Treasure Hunt in History". Edsel and a panel will discuss his books, the film adaptation, and the work of Monuments Men and women. Panel members include Ambassador Stuart Eizenstat, President Clinton's special representative on Holocaust-era issues, and other experts from the National Archives, and the National Gallery.

(The National Archives launched the International Research Portal to Nazi-era records, providing digital access to millions of Nazi-era cultural property-related records through a single portal, for the first time ever, in 2011.)


For the first time, the Smithsonian's Archives of American Art (SAAA) will present photographs, official records, maps, correspondence, and audio interviews that chronicle these extraordinary men's and women's actions.

The exhibit features:

  • The 71-page "partial inventory" of more than 1,000 artworks stolen from museums and private collections, amassed by Nazi Germany's second in command, Hermann Goering for his personal enjoyment.
  • Photographs and papers regarding the recovered stolen treasures including Michelangelo's sculpture "Madonna and Child" (the Bruges Madonna), the Ghent Altarpiece, and gold reserves valued at billions of dollars.
  • Documents about other members. Rose Valland was a French art historian at Paris' Jeu de Paume Museum, where she spied on Nazis looters, and kept detailed notes, lists, photos of stolen artwork, and locations of their secret hiding places. Valland, whose character is played by Cate Blanchett, played a major role in saving an enormous part of Europe's art and culture.

The Smithsonian's Archives of American Art holds the personal papers and oral histories of key Monuments Men, including:

  • George Leslie Stout, who was a well-respected art conservator and instructor at Harvard's Fogg Museum. His character is portrayed by George Clooney, who also directed and co-wrote the film.
  • James J. Rorimer, an art historian, curator and eventual director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Rorimer was the motivating force in developing the Cloisters. Click here for a video of Rorimer receiving a medal. His character is portrayed by Matt Damon. (The National Gallery of Art holds some of Rorimer's papers as well.)
  • Walker Hancock, a sculptor whose bust of former President George H.W. Bush is in the U.S. Capitol, and other statues are in the Library of Congress and the National Cathedral.
  • Thomas Carr Howe, an art consultant and arts administrator in San Francisco.

Gallery talks about the exhibition will be held on March 13 and 28 at 1 P.M.


  • Exhibit "The Monuments Men and the National Gallery of Art: Behind the History". Now to Sept. 1, West Building Art Information Room

This display features World War Two-era photographs, documents, and memorabilia, many never before exhibited, that illustrate the crucial role the National Gallery of Art played in the creation of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFAA) program; the Roberts Commission, founded by FDR in 1943 "for the protection and salvage of artistic and historic monuments in Europe"; and the experiences of real MFAA officers.​

  • Lecture "The Inside Story: The Monuments Men and the National Gallery of Art detailing its relationship with the Monuments Men of the MFAA". March 16 at 2:00 P.M.

Speakers will include National Gallery experts, and Lynn H. Nicholas, author of "The Rape of Europa: The Fate of Europe's Treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War". It's the basis of the documentary with that title.

Twelve monuments men and women had been associated with the National Gallery of Art (NGA) before the war, and in later years, three held important positions at the museum.

One was WAC Captain Edith Standen, who dug up an ancient bronze cannon with her bare hands. The Nazis had taken the priceless cannon from Paris, where it had been since Napoleon captured it more than a century before, and buried it in Stuttgart shortly before the Allies arrived.

The National Gallery also held for safekeeping 202 masterpieces from Berlin museums, as ordered by the U.S. War Department. The museum displayed "the 202" that included paintings by Rembrandt, Rubens, Tintoretto, El Greco, Daumier, and Botticelli.

"For 40 days, the line often wrapped around the block. The exhibition drew in 964,970 people, an unprecedented number at the time," the NGA said in a statement. President Harry S. Truman dropped in twice; John D. Rockefeller, once. The 202 works were returned to Germany.

May all these celebrations of "The Monuments Men" in film and in real life heighten interest in restituting the many thousands of Nazi-pilfered artworks that have never been returned to their rightful owners, or heirs of owners.

The latest such discovery occurred in February and last November. Some 1,400 looted masterpieces valued at one billion Euros (about $1.37 billion) were found in November amid trash in the Munich apartment of Cornelius Gurlitt, son of an art dealer who helped Nazis sell stolen paintings.

In February, an additional 60 Nazi-looted artworks were found stashed in Gurlitt's Salzburg, Austria home, according to Austrian news reports.

He is the son of Hildebrand Gurlitt, who dealt in stolen art with Hitler's propaganda chief, Joseph Goebbels. Hildebrand Gurlitt presumably bequeathed these paintings by Renoir, Picasso, Gauguin, Chagall, and many German expressionists -- what Hitler had called "degenerate" art.

It will take years, and probably court battles, to determine the rightful owners of these works and many other purloined ones. While Cornelius Gurlitt and many museums fight returning Nazi-stolen works, other museums -- especially American ones -- cooperate.

The National Gallery 14 years ago returned a 17th-century Flemish painting to the heirs of Marguerite Stern, the widow of a Jewish banker whose art collection was seized by the Nazis when they occupied Paris. The heirs sought to reclaim ''Still Life With Fruit and Game'' by Frans Snyders after reading about the painting on the museum's website.

The Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth is a shining example of how to handle this. The Kimbell had owned its only J.M.W. Turner painting for 40 years when it learned that "Glaucus and Scylla" had been confiscated by France's pro-Nazi Vichy government from Jewish art collectors John and Anna Jaffé .

The museum promptly restituted it to the family in 2006. When the heirs sold it a few months later at Christie's in New York, the Kimbell bought it again for $6,424,000.

For more info: National Archives,, on the National Mall, Constitution Avenue and 9th Street, N.W., Washington, D.C., 202-357-5000, or Smithsonian's Archives of American Art,, Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture, 1st floor, near the Kogod Courtyard connecting the National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum, 8th and F Streets, N.W., Washington, D.C., 202-633-7940. National Gallery of Art,, on the National Mall, Constitution Avenue between Constitution Avenue between 4th and 7th Streets, N.W., Washington, D.C. Free. 202-737-4215. Monuments Men Foundation for the Preservation of Art,, 866-WWII-ART.

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