How American Museums Protected Their Art From the Nazis

The "Monuments Men" of Europe weren't the only ones scrambling to keep priceless works out of Hitler's reach.
In 1945, U.S. Army personnel stand beside an Edouard Manet discovered in a German vault. (National Archives/AP)

This weekend, George Clooney’s newest film, The Monuments Men, arrives in theaters, highlighting a fascinating chapter in World War II. The movie is a fictionalized adaptation of Robert M. Edsel’s authoritative nonfiction book of the same title, which focuses on an international unit of art experts tasked with preserving priceless works throughout the European theatre. Beginning in 1943, the Monuments Men dutifully retrieved canvases and confiscated heirlooms stashed in salt mines and inconspicuous locations across the continent (and later Japan). Given the inconceivable scope of the cultural upheaval, it’s understandable that one element of the story remains largely overlooked: the precautions taken to protect artworks on American soil.

The subject is explored in Edsel’s book (but not on screen), and in even sharper relief in Lynn H. Nicholas’ The Rape of Europa, published in 1994. (The book was followed by a powerful documentary in 2006, which is currently streaming on Netflix, as well as a comprehensive website that dovetails with Edsel’s research.) As Nicholas writes, Americans had every reason to fear an invasion: “If the Japanese had managed to cross thousands of miles of ocean undeterred to turn the huge military complex at Pearl Harbor into a smoking shambles, it seemed quite possible that they could do the same to San Francisco, and the increasing successes of the German U-boat fleet in the Atlantic underlined the vulnerability of the eastern seaboard.” In December 1941, a congressman even proposed painting “gleaming white” monuments in Washington, D.C., gray to make them less obvious targets during potential air raids. 

Throughout December and the capricious months that followed, American museum owners “with visions of London’s Blitz on their minds” stirred to action. Paintings on the top floor of the Museum of Modern Art were removed each night and hidden in sandbagged storage rooms. Paintings and sculptures from the National Gallery of Art were surreptitiously taken down and transported by train for safekeeping at the Biltmore near Asheville, North Carolina, the largest private estate in the country. By February 1942, 15,000 items from the Metropolitan Museum of Art—90 truckloads in all—were stashed in an empty mansion outside Philadelphia. Collections from San Diego and San Francisco were relocated to Colorado Springs.

Curious about whether such maneuvers were confined to the coasts, I recently spoke with Bart Ryckbosch, an archivist at the Art Institute of Chicago. “Our museum most definitely sprang into gear after Pearl Harbor,” he said. Ryckbosch consulted the minutes from meetings conducted by Art Institute trustees between December 1941 and February 1942, which offer a glimpse into the museum’s commitment to the safety of its employees and the public.

The minutes show that, in addition to brainstorming evacuation plans for their holdings, trustees approved budget increases for staff training in first aid and fire safety and “added safety precautions for sky-lighted areas under which people must pass on the way to refuge areas” in the event of an air raid. One trustee even pondered the “advisability of camouflaging the building by smoke screens” by installing “smudge pots on each side of the building, which would produce a smudge screen in about three minutes and would last for several hours.”

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James Hughes is a Chicago-based writer and editor who has contributed to SlateThe BelieverWax Poetics, and The Village Voice. For a decade, he was an editor and publisher of Stop Smiling magazine and its book imprint. 

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