Committee of the American Council of Learned Societies on the Protection of Cultural Treasures in War Areas

Today’s post was written by Dr. Greg Bradsher, Senior Archivist at the National Archives in College Park.

The idea of establishing an American commission to assist in protecting and restituting cultural property in war areas grew out of discussions among American educators and museum officials about the potentially dangerous impact of the European war on historic works of art and artifacts.  In the fall of 1942, the American Defense–Harvard Group, established by a group of Harvard University faculty two years earlier, began working with the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) to devise plans for protecting cultural property in European areas that would soon be occupied by Allied military forces. Representatives of these groups plus officials of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the National Gallery of Art approached Supreme Court Chief Justice Harlan F. Stone, who was also a National Gallery of Art board member, with a proposal for a Federal commission that would protect and restitute Nazi-looted art.  After discussing the matter with Secretary of State Cordell Hull, Chief Justice Stone wrote to President Franklin D. Roosevelt in December 1942 to solicit his support.

As a result of several conferences among groups concerned about the protection of European cultural heritage, George L. Stout (Fogg Museum conservator), Paul J. Sachs (Fogg Museum and Harvard University), and George H. Chase (Harvard University Professor of classical art) in January 1943 wrote Francis H. Taylor (President of the American Association of Museums); William B. Dinsmoor (Chairman of the Department of Fine Arts at Columbia, professor of archaeology, and president of the Archaeological Institute of America); Waldo G. Leland (Director of the American Council of Learned Societies); and Laurence V. Coleman (Director of the American Association of Museums).  The letter enclosed a draft petition to the Government to create a Commission for the protection and restitution of cultural objects affected or threatened by the war. This petition as drafted included the statement, “To safeguard these things will show respect for the beliefs and customs of all men and will bear witness that these things belong not only to particular peoples but also to the heritage of mankind.”

Not waiting for the Government to act, at the ACLS annual meeting on January 29, 1943, the Committee of the American Council of Learned Societies on the Protection of Cultural Treasures in War Areas was created under the chairmanship of William B. Dinsmoor, and was aided initially by financial grants from the Rockefeller Foundation.  The Committee’s headquarters were established in July at the Frick Art Reference Library in New York which made space and staff available.  Because of the great amount of space needed for the work, the Library closed its doors to the public until January 4, 1944, when the Committee was able to restrict its working space. Here and at the Blumenthal House, a branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the greatest part of its work was done between July 1, 1943, and April 1, 1945.

In April Dinsmoor wrote the Director of the School of Military Government in Charlottesville, Virginia, that the committee had already compiled a roster of competent individuals who could serve as Civil Affairs officers dealing with cultural matter, and that it was preparing a series of city and town maps having locations of the important monuments and collections plainly marked.  He also indicated that the committee, with adequate funding, also wanted to prepare a card catalogue of cultural monuments and museums and private collections of sufficient importance to place under guard in the event of occupation; acquiring information on and from museum personnel in occupied countries; compiling information regarding the confiscation, forced sales, auctions, or destruction of European cultural property; and, preparing brief general directions for the salvage and temporary protection of movable and immovable works of art.  The committee sent out to interested scholars a statement of its aims, and a questionnaire enlisting their assistance, which were forwarded to the Secretary of War on May 11, 1943.

The first full meeting of the ACLS Committee on Protection of Cultural Treasures in War Areas took place on in New York City on June 25. At the meeting, Archivist of the United States Solon J. Buck, a member of the committee, expressed the hope that archival material would not be overlooked and that information concerning this material was readily available in the National Archives.   Buck stated that Professor Ernst Posner, with the assistance of the National Archives, would be interested in helping to prepare a full inventory of archival institutions of Europe.  Early in July, Dinsmoor and the committee’s executive secretary, Sumner McK. Crosby, visited the National Archives and asked for its advice and cooperation in the development of lists of cultural monuments, treasures, and institutions to be made available to the armed forces. By June, specialist officers at the School of Military Government were being trained to locate and protect works of artistic and historic significance in war zones.

In the meantime, in April 1943, the President responded to Justice Stone that he had discussed the proposal with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as the commission would need to work closely with the U.S. military.  On June 23, President Roosevelt approved the creation of a Federal commission to assist the U.S. Army in protecting cultural property in Allied-occupied areas and to formulate restitution principles and procedures. Two months later, the State Department announced the official establishment of the Commission under the chairmanship of Supreme Court Justice Owen J. Roberts.  The American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in War Areas (initially “in Europe”)—also known as the Roberts Commission—was established on August 20.  Commission members worked with the U.S. military, museum officials, art historians, and international commissions to protect European (later with Asian) art, monuments, institutions, and records of cultural value from war-related damage or theft. In addition, the Commission would aide in the restitution of public and private property appropriated by the Nazis and their collaborators.

In order to clarify the relationship of the Commission to the work of the ACLS Committee on the Protection of Cultural Treasures in War Areas and the American Defense-Harvard Group, the Commission requested that these groups continue their activities, but that their work be canalized through the Commission for distribution to the proper government agencies.

At its first meeting in August 1943, the Roberts Commission established seven committees to undertake Commission activities as well as to coordinate its relationship with the ACLS Committee and the American Defense–Harvard Group.  One of these was the Committee on Collection of Maps, Information, and Description of Art Objects under the direction of Dinsmoor and Paul JSachs, with Charles R. Morey, Sumner McK. Crosby and William L. M. Burke as Advisers.  During the several months preceding the Commission’s establishment, the Harvard Group had worked with a wide circle of scholars to compile lists of monuments needing protection. In July 1943, the ACLS Committee used these lists and additional information to create maps that identified cultural treasures Allied armies were likely to encounter.

On July 9, Dinsmoor, acting in his capacity as chairman of the Committee on Protection of Cultural Treasures in War Areas, and the committee’s executive secretary, Sumner McK. Crosby, met with Maj. Gen. John H. Hilldring, Chief of the Civil Affairs Division of the War Department.  At this meeting Hilldring approved the committee’s idea of providing the War Department with cultural maps.  Five days later Dinsmoor wrote Hilldring that the committee was proceeding with the greatest possible speed in the preparation of maps of cities in European war areas, beginning with Italy.  He noted that the collection of the factual data to accompany the maps was proceeding in collaboration with the Library of Congress, National Archives, and the Smithsonian Institution.

The small ACLS’s Committee on the Protection of Cultural Treasures in War Areas’ technical staff was aided by more than a hundred expert scholars, art historians, collectors, and artists, many of them refugees from Europe. They compiled lists and catalogues and prepared maps of the monuments, fine art objects, and archives to be protected in all theaters of war. This plan of mapping and indexing, though simple and effective in concept and use, called for great ingenuity and an enormous amount of patient detailed work in its preparation. A master index was set up covering each of the occupied countries and each of the provinces in that country, describing and mapping the edifices, works, and objects of art which might be encountered by the Allied armies. The lists of cultural treasures put together by the American Defense-Harvard Group were of invaluable assistance in this operation.

To obtain this information several thousands of questionnaires were sent out to officials and scholars of American art and educational-institutions asking for data on their recent research abroad. Guides of all kinds and special reference books were studied. The Smithsonian Institution, the National Archives, the American Library Association, the Library of Congress, and other institutions lent a hand with their files and staffs.

As the master index grew, it was checked and rechecked by the experts and the Committee’s specialists. Separate lists of churches, palaces and houses, monuments, and cultural institutions were compiled. As they were completed they were photostated and copies were forwarded to the War Department at Washington. Working from the information assembled in the master file, detailed maps of the principal cities, regions, and countries of all areas involved in the war were prepared for the use of Army ground and air forces. Objects to be protected were spotted in on a tracing overlay on the maps, many of which were supplied by the Army Map Service. The whole was photostated, and positive prints of each were sent to Washington. In addition, a negative photostat of each was transmitted to the Army Air Corps, thus permitting duplication to as great an extent as was necessary for the Service Forces. Reproduction of these photostatic maps was an extensive project in itself, supported by the Frick Art Reference Library and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Maps of the most important areas were printed and bound up into atlases by the Provost Marshal General’s Office; these areas were Belgium, Denmark, France, Holland, Italy, Norway, Germany, and Japan.  In all, the War Department was supplied with comprehensive data on Albania, Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, China, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, France, French Indochina, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Japan, Java, Korea, the Netherlands, Norway, the Philippines, Rumania, Sumatra, and Yugoslavia. The total number of these annotated maps was 786, created between July 1943 and April 1945. The files of cards used as preparatory material for these maps as well as the originals and negative arid positive photostatic copies were subsequently deposited with the Roberts Commission.

The Roberts Commission’s secondary goal was to recommend restitution principles and procedures to the State Department and to work with the War Department to implement them. Commission staff in London worked with a number of national and international agencies and commissions addressing the issue of restitution. Similarly the American Commission, through the ACLS Committee, had for some time been collecting such information as it could with regard to actual looting, but sources of information in this country were limited and almost entirely secondary.  A centralization of this sort of information seemed mandatory.  So, in April 1944 the Conference of Allied Ministers of Education in London established the Inter-Allied Commission for the Protection and Restitution of Cultural Materials (also known as the Vaucher Commission). This commission was one of the first entities to systematically collect and organize information regarding Nazi looting and destruction of art, artifacts, and cultural institutions.  Using as a nucleus the files prepared by Karol Estreicher on looted objects and on personnel concerned with looting, particularly in Poland, the Vaucher Commission proceeded to build a file on loot and enemy personnel involved in looting to which was added the file of information concerning loot and war damage compiled by the ACLS Committee in New York.  A system was established whereby the accessioning and filing in the two centers were made identical, and duplicates of the index cards in microfilm were interchanged between the United States and the Vaucher Commission.  Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives (MFA&A) officers used this information in their investigations.

The Commission, the ACLS Committee, and the War Department welcomed the assistance the National Archives provided, all realizing the importance of archives and archival institutions. Much of the information on archival repositories in enemy-occupied territory that the National Archives furnished was incorporated onto maps prepared by the ACLS Committee and published and distributed by the Military Government Division of the Provost Marshal General (PMG)’s Office.  Lists of archival repositories and information on record keeping practices of existing agencies were also furnished directly to the PMG’s Office, which distributed them to overseas theaters of operations.  These lists contained the names, location, official head, holdings and buildings for 1,619 important archival repositories in Europe.

Another activity of the ACLS Committee was the preparation of a lecture on the importance of protecting and salvaging the artistic and historic monuments in Europe to be given as part of the curriculum of the Civil Affairs Training Schools throughout the country. This lecture, illustrated with 54 slides, was given at Yale, Pittsburgh, Harvard, Western Reserve, Northwestern, Stanford, Wisconsin, and Michigan Universities. A printed statement entitled, “First Aid Protection for Art Treasures and Monuments,” mainly an abstract from the manual prepared by the American Defense-Harvard Group, was prepared and distributed to the Civil Affairs officers attending these lectures.

In the spring of 1945, the Committee of the American Council of Learned Societies on the Protection of Cultural Treasures in War Areas shut down operations in New York City and relocated its files to the Roberts Commission.  In the process of terminating the committee’s existence, Dinsmoor wrote the Archivist of the United States on June 1, thanking him for the assistance of the National Archives to the work of the committee:[1]

Letter from ACLS Chairman William Dinsmoor to AOTUS Solon Buck
Letter from ACLS Chairman William Dinsmoor to AOTUS Solon Buck

The Roberts Commission ended its existence on June 30, 1946.  When it transferred its records to the National Archives, it included the files of the Committee of the American Council of Learned Societies on the Protection of Cultural Treasures in War Areas.  These files were subsequently microfilmed, on constitute rolls 95-154 of National Archives Microfilm Publication M-1944, Records of the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in War Areas (Roberts Commission), 1943-1946.

[1] “Letter of appreciation from ACLS Chairman William Dinsmoor to Archivist of the United States Solon J. Buck”, Case 145-E6, American Council of Learned Societies-Relations with the ACLS Committee on Cultural Treasures in War Areas (Dinsmoor Committee), Case Files Relating to Extra-Federal Archival Affairs, 1944-1948 (Entry A1-151, NAID 7562969), Office of the Archivist, Records of the National Archives and Records Administration, Record Group 64.