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‘MONUMENTS MEN’: On Frontlines Saving Europe’s Art, 1942-1946

Monuments Men - Examining the Ghent Altarpiece
Monuments Men - Examining the Ghent AltarpieceCourtesy of Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution

A most improbable squad of soldiers, during World War II, was commanded to identify and safeguard European cultural sites, monuments from Allied bombing. This unique U.S. Army unit was known as the "Monuments Men."

The exhibition will be on display from Feb. 7 to April 20 in the Lawrence A. Fleischman Gallery at the Smithsonian’s Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture.

However, the unit was officially named "The Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Section." Due to the fact they included art curators, scholars, architects, librarians and archivists from the United States and Great Britain.

The Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art contains the personal papers and oral-history interviews from several key Monuments Men. The exhibition features the inventory of artwork, totaling more than 1,000 items, amassed by Hermann Goering, Nazi Germany’s second in command, used many troops to loot museums and private collections.

Recovered objects included Michelangelo’s sculpture “Madonna and Child,” the Ghent Altarpiece and stacks of gold and precious metals worth billions. Original Papers and photographs from the Archives’ collection of stolen Nazi treasures concealed below in salt mines across Germany exposed the enormous scale of the plunder.

Rose Valland, a French art historian at the Jeu de Paume Museum in Paris, spied on the Nazis lootings and kept detailed notes, lists and photographs of stolen artwork and hidden storage locations.

The Archives acquired the personal papers belonging to one of the prominent Monuments Men, "Stout," who was a well-respected art conservator and instructor at the Fogg Museum in Boston.

Stout developed the plan for the conservation corps that led to the formation in 1943 of the Roberts Commission, known as the "American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in War Areas."

The Archive of American Art revealed how most of Stout’s correspondence will be on display during the commission’s development and his time in Germany, as well as field manuals and maps of cultural sites that the military carried with them from D-Day through V-E Day.

There will be gallery talks about the exhibition March 13 and 28 at 1 p.m. in the Lawrence A. Fleischman Gallery; furthermore, oral histories from six of the well known Monuments Men will be accessible as a guide by cell phone.