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.
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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.”

As for the evacuation of the Art Institute’s holdings, paperwork and small museum objects were to be stored in a fireproof vault in a Michigan Avenue bank, while larger, “irreplaceable” art objects would be trucked 40 miles outside the city to an unoccupied bank building, guarded round the clock by two guards (“at the expense of about $2,400 a year”) along with a local night watchman. The museum ordered metal barrels and made preparations to produce wood crates and boxes for the transportation of art. By December 1943, however, the minutes note that the contracts for the rental of off-site storage facilities were cancelled, “as the hazard of fire raids from foreign nations does not seem to be imminent.”

A breach at a cherished museum is a prospect that continues to haunt, as any reader of The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt’s bestselling novel of art theft in the aftermath of a terrorist bombing at the Metropolitan Museum, can attest. Overseas, destruction and looting remain a grim reality. On January 24, a truck-bomb blast aimed at Cairo’s police headquarters claimed four lives and also caused significant damage to the Museum of Islamic Art, located just 25 meters across the street. Egypt’s minister of antiquities, Mohamed Ibrahim, reported that 74 precious artifacts had been destroyed and that $14 million would be needed to repair the museum. Months earlier, Ibrahim had written his own editorial for the Washington Post urging the U.S. to help “combat the systematic and organized looting of our museums and archaeological sites,” adding that, “with much of our history still waiting to be discovered under the sand, the potential losses are staggering.”

Meanwhile, American archeologists, selected by the U.S. State Department in 2012, are trying to restore and register priceless items from Afghanistan. In March 2001, the Taliban led a campaign to smash “every museum artifact that they could find that bore a human or animal likeness.” Over 70,000 objects, some reaching as far back as the Stone and Bronze Age, were lost. The losses could have been even worse had a group of “key keepers” not kept some of the museum’s most valuable treasures stashed “in obscure corners of the storerooms scattered around the museum,” as well as “three safes inside the presidential palace that the Taliban never found.”

The group responsible for salvaging the remains was dispatched from the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute, located just 10 miles south of the Art Institute of Chicago—a museum whose own world-renowned collection seemed, for a brief time, as vulnerable as any in the world.

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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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