George Clooney has impeccable timing.  He wrote, directed, and stars in The Monuments Men, which was released on Friday.  This story of the museum curators and art historians who worked at the end of World War II to rescue artistic and historic monuments from destruction at the hands of the Nazis is being rendered on the big screen while there have been many news stories in the last months of caches of Nazi lootings that are still being uncovered.

First, for the backstory. When I visited Prague several years ago, I went to the Maisel Synagogue in the Jewish Quarter and learned that many of the artifacts in the collection had been brought from other parts of Europe to Prague during World War II because Hitler intended to create a “museum of an extinct race.”  While mind-boggling from a human perspective to consider how Hitler intended to mock the Jewish race, the archivist in me realized the provenance complications generated by these examples of war plunder.  Apparently after the war, there were some efforts to return these confiscated objects to their former communities, but these efforts were shut down by the communists in 1950.

Of course, the objects that wound up in Prague were not the only artistic works impacted by World War II.  This was part of a larger movement by the Nazis against what they called “degenerate art” — which more or less meant anything modern or that could be considered to have Jewish influence or that did not reinforce the Nazi ideals of racial purity.  In the end, the fact that the Nazis were impeccable records keepers turns out to our benefit.  Some of Hitler’s subordinates created photo albums of the works that were looted by German soldiers, with the apparent intention of facilitating Hitler’s choosing works to be in a museum in Linz.  (For more information on these albums, see the blog recently posted by David Ferriero to NARA’s web site.)

On June 23, 1943, President Franklin D. Roosevelt formed the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in War Areas; this commission (also known as the Roberts Commission due to the participation of Supreme Court justice Owen Roberts) then established the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Section under the Allied Armies.  Its members became known as the Monuments Men, although there were also women among the 345 people from thirteen different countries who served in this manner.  The Monuments Men Foundation provides more information about these people who served — many of whom extended their service long after the war ended.  NARA holds the records from the Roberts Commission.  The Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library also has an interesting article on its web site about Fred Shipman, who was the first director of the FDR Library and took time away from that position to be one of the Monuments Men.

So now back to the present.  In February of last year, the Louvre announced that it was returning seven paintings to the surviving relatives of Jews who had these artworks taken from them in the 1930s.  Last fall, after a thorough investigation of the provenance of the art held in its museums, a Dutch commission reported 139 works suspected of being Nazi loot.  Within a week, German officials revealed a two-year investigation into the son of a Nazi-era art dealer that turned up over 1,400 pieces of art believed to have been lost or destroyed during World War II.

These are certainly not the first looted artworks to have been discovered.  In 1998, the Washington Conference Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art were written, pledging the identification and restitution of artworks that had been stolen by the Nazis.  In 2000, the North Carolina Museum of Art discovered that a painting in its collection, Madonna and Child in a Landscape by Lucas Cranach the Elder, had been part of a collection owned by Philipp von Gomperz, a Viennese Jew.  The museum restituted the painting to the nieces of von Gomperz, and they repaid this action by selling the painting back to the museum at a price well below its market value.  If only all such stories could end so amicably.

The multiplicity of recent examples related to artworks looted during World War II is what I contend might play to Clooney’s box office advantage.  But the fact that artworks looted by the Nazis are still being discovered nearly seventy years after the end of World War II is frankly appalling.  None of this speaks well to the record keeping of the museums and archives that have held unacknowledged Nazi-looted materials.  (Of course, I am hopeful these have just been examples of poor record keeping rather than something much more morally reprehensible.)

So to end where I began, with the Monuments Men: although it may never emerge from committee, in December of 2013, Senator Blunt of Missouri introduced a bill (S. 1862) recommending that the Congressional Gold Medal be awarded to the Monuments Men.  I can’t bestow on them any medals, but I can say that learning more of their story has stirred my archivist pride.  Now may we finish the work that they began.

P.S.  A few days later, the news reported that an additional 60 pieces were found inside Cornelius Gurlitt’s second home in Salzburg, Austria, and seized on Monday — including works by Renoir, Manet, Picasso, and Monet.

P.P.S. In May, the last known photo album of Nazi stolen art was donated to the National Archives.

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