Today’s post is written by Dr. Greg Bradsher.
During the past several weeks there has been great international interest in the art works that had been in the possession of Hildebrand Gurlitt before and during World War II, some of which were ultimately recovered at war’s end, stored at the United States Army’s Wiesbaden Central Collecting Point and subsequently returned to him five years later. Fortunately for those interested in the subject, a significant amount of documentation held by the National Archives regarding Gurlitt and his art works has been digitized and is available on www.fold3.com.
The story of Gurlitt and his art works involves many facets, including the acquisition and disposition of them by the Wiesbaden Central Collecting Point. In order better to understand the context in which that collecting point came into existence and initially operated, I thought it would be useful to provide some background.
As the Allies pushed further into Germany during the spring of 1945, the MFA&A (Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives) officers, the so-called Monuments Men, continued to uncover not only looted cultural property, but also, increasingly, German-owned cultural property that had been hidden in castles, salt mines, air-raid bunkers, and other secure places for safekeeping. By mid-June more than 600 emergency repositories of cultural property had been located or their existence had been confirmed by the six MFA&A officers with the 12th Army Group, and over 100 of them had been actually inspected by them. It was at this time that an MFA&A officer expressed the belief that it was safe to assume that at least two-thirds of recovered cultural property would prove to be legitimate Germany property, not looted property. This would indeed be the case. However, procedures called for all German art collections in repositories to be suspected of containing looted material until they had been personally inspected and screened by MFA&A personnel.
Realizing the importance of the cultural property that was being identified and desiring to protect it until ownership could be established, on May 21, SHAEF (Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Force) sent a message to the Army Groups indicating that they were responsible for the storage, safeguarding, preservation and inventorying of the art treasures that had been discovered in areas occupied by their forces. Pending agreement on final disposal of such art treasures, the Army Groups were to make immediate arrangements to concentrate and safeguard them in suitable accommodation at some location within their eventual zones in Germany. On or about June 1, 1945, the United States Army decided to establish collecting points to house recovered cultural property. Even before the formal establishment of such collecting points, in April 1945, with the recovery of German-owned art from the Berlin museums, gold, and SS loot in the mine at Merkers, the Reichsbank in Frankfurt was put into use as a storage facility, primarily for gold, currency, and jewelry. In the next month, Monuments Man Captain Walker Hancock established a collecting repository within the State Archives building at Marburg for such items as paintings from the Suermondt Museum in Aachen, the Metz Cathedral treasure, and numerous other cultural properties from Cologne, Essen, and other western German cities.
During June 1945, the Army decided to establish a collecting point in Munich for recovered looted cultural property, since most of such property was being recovered in Bavaria. The Army also decided to establish a collecting point in Frankfurt, primarily for German-owned items, but a suitable facility could not be found. So the Army turned its attention to the Landesmuseum at Wiesbaden. It was considered the only safe and secured building in that part of Germany. Though damaged, it was ideal for the purpose and it was repairable. The Landesmuseum, designed by Theodor Fischer and completed in 1915, served as cultural facility for collections of fine arts, natural science and archaeology. The building suffered relatively little bomb damage, but all the glass in building’s 2,000 windows had been blown out in the bombings and part of the roof was gone. After the war it was used by displaced persons who did much damage and destruction. Then the U.S. Army moved in a quartermaster’s supply unit that utilized the building as a warehouse and center for the distribution of soldiers’ uniforms and rations.
Army officials wanted quick repairs on the museum in Wiesbaden because they were eager to move the cultural property out of the Reichsbank in Frankfurt, whose numbers increased during May and June. A report in the third week of June indicated that at the bank were over 3,000 boxes and crates containing sculptures, paintings, prints, engravings, woodcuts, and other objects of artistic or cultural importance.
On July 2 the 12th Army Group ordered the U.S. Seventh Army to request space in the Wiesbaden Museum for storage of works of art then held in Reichsbank and suggested the building be made as weather-proof and secured as possible. Assigned to oversee the operation was 33-year-old Captain Walter Inge Farmer. A graduate of Miami University (Ohio) in Architecture in 1935, he did architecture work from 1935 to 1942, entered the Army in March 1942, and was commissioned in January 1943 after Engineer Officer Candidate School. In early June, Farmer, who had by then serving for two years with the 373rd Engineer General Service Regiment, successfully requested to join the MFA&A assignment.
In late June Farmer was informed about the Landesmuseum going to be requisitioned and that he would be sent to Wiesbaden to oversee its repair as well as to serve as the MFA&A officer. He was told that the Reichsbank Frankfurt material (including the Merkers cultural property) would be sent to Wiesbaden. Besides being responsible for the engineer work on the building he was to be responsible to survey and protect other cultural properties in the Regierungsbezirk, a governmental district which included the Land, or county, of Hesse and the immediate area of Nassau. He was expected to check within a 100-mile vicinity to visit repositories to determine their status and possible transfer to Wiesbaden.
When Farmer arrived at Wiesbaden, he found the building being used as a quartermaster depot and that the building, besides having window glass and roof problems, had no water, no heat, and no light, but that it was salvageable. In short order steps were initiated for requisitioning and repairing the Landesmuseum. The first weeks Farmer spent 18 hour days working on the building, knowing he had been given two less than two months to get things in order. Farmer also found time, in early July, to inspect various repositories.
By mid-July, knowing that the bulk of the artwork stored at Frankfurt would be coming to Wiesbaden starting August 20, Farmer requested assistance. The help came in late July in the form of 26-year-old art historian, Corporal Kenneth Lindsay, who had been with a Signal Corps Intelligence unit decoding messages.
By mid-August, the Landesmuseum having been repaired, the Wiesbaden Central Collecting Point was almost ready to receive the cultural property from the Reichsbank in Frankfurt. At this point Farmer was informed that he would be collecting point director. While waiting on the transfer of the items from Frankfurt to Wiesbaden, Farmer continued inspecting repositories in his geographical area of responsibility.
During the latter part of August the Reichsbank-held items were moved to the Wiesbaden Central Collecting Point. Also coming to the collecting point in late August were other items, including two collections of loot from Poland, thirteen cases of archaeological materials and 773 liturgical objects looted from the treasuries of the Polish churches. Arriving on September 17 were Hungarian Coronation Regalia. Much of the material coming to Wiesbaden after that date was German-owned or alleged German-owned property that had been hidden and recovered. Now came the hard work of inventorying the materials began and the awaiting instructions regarding their disposition.
Most of the story of what happened subsequently is in the records of the Wiesbaden Central Collecting Point. These records have been reproduced on 117 rolls of microfilm publication: M1947, Records Concerning the Central Collecting Points (“Ardelia Hall Collection”): Wiesbaden Central Collecting Point, 1945-1952. Several years ago the microfilm was digitized and is available on the Holocaust Era Assets section of www.fold3.com. For additional information about other relevant National Archives records see http://www.archives.gov/research/holocaust/. Please also visit the website of the Monuments Men Foundation.