Today’s post is written by Dr. Greg Bradsher, Archivist at the National Archives in College Park
Schloss Neuschwanstein, two miles east of Fussen, a picturesque little town, some 80 miles south of Munich, in southern Schwabe, Bavaria, had been a central Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR) repository for looted cultural property. A considerable bulk of this material, including the most important, had since been removed to other repositories, most notably to the salt mine at Alt Aussee in Austria. Still, it contained a large amount of ERR loot which if not the very best was still important – pictures, furniture, a large amount of silver and fine jewels.
Rose Valland, who had kept an eye on the acquisition and disposition of cultural property in Paris by the Germans, made information available to Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives (MFA&A) Specialist Officer 1st Lt. James J. Rorimer (formerly of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City) in a document listing several German repositories for storing looted cultural property. Concerning Fussen, the document, which was entitled “List of Known caches of French Artwork in Germany,” stated:
Fussen-caches in Neuschwanstein, Hohenschwangau, and Augsburg, near Fussen. This group of caches, which has existed since the beginning of 1941, is much the largest. This is where most of the works of art, taken by the Germans during ’40, ’41, ’42, ’43 were brought.
A large number of artworks belonging to the principal collections of Rothschild, David-Weill, and Veil-Picard are kept there.
The archives and inventories of the Rosenberg Department were also drawn up in Fussen.
Valland had also informed Rorimer that at Buxheim, in the vicinity of Memmingen, there were “two repositories activated in 1943 for storing the overflow from Fussen. A considerable number of paintings had been shipped to these repositories.”
While awaiting an opportunity to deal with the treasure locations Valland had identified, Rorimer was busy with handling other protection and salvage matters during the early spring. He would soon be joined by T-5 John D. Skilton, Jr., former curator at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Skilton had arrived in England in early June 1944 and was assigned to Civil Affairs work on the continent. Finally, in March 1945, he was assigned to MFA&A work with the Seventh U.S. Army, and that same month moved into Germany, where he operated alone for quite awhile until Rorimer showed up. When he joined up with Rorimer they first dealt with the mine at Heilbronn and then moved on to Augsburg.
Shortly before the surrender of Fussen to the Seventh U.S. Army, Rorimer notified the proper authorities to be prepared to safeguard the castle at Neuschwanstein as soon as the troops entered the region. Not long afterwards, on May 1, word reached Rorimer, Seventh U.S. Army MFA&A, that the castles near Fussen (Neuschwanstein and Hohenschwangau) had been taken.
On the morning of May 3, Rorimer and Skilton prepared to set out for Fussen and the nearby castle at Neuschwanstein. Their first problem was to find some sort of vehicle in which to make the journey from Augsburg. A Red Cross worker placed his jeep at their disposal for a few days. The jeep, marked with red crosses, was an attraction all by its self – wherever they went American soldiers crowded around to ask for coffee and doughnuts. “Our route,” Skilton wrote, “led us through some magnificent scenery in the more isolated sections of Bavaria. Snowcapped mountains, little villages and deep forests stimulated and heightened our anticipation as to what we might find.”
The route from Augsburg took them some 50 miles southwest to Memmingen. There they stopped and learned that a couple of miles away in the Carthusian monastery at Buxheim activities had taken place in connection with shipments of works of art from France and other countries. They set out immediately for Buxheim.
As they entered the monastery they found an incredible collection of loot. In one of the rooms they found an item marked on the back in red with the collection number of the former owner David-Weill, and just below this in black, the letters ERR, followed by numbers. According to Skilton, this was, as far as he knew, the first time a member of the MFA&A staff had actually seen the ERR marking. The corridors were stacked with pre-19th Century furniture. There were ethnographical materials from Russian museums – Kiev in particular. In one enormous hall there were piles upon piles of oriental rugs, tapestries and textiles. Many bore tags with the names of the original owners. They found 72 packing cases with 158 paintings, including those by Boucher, Nattier, Watteau, Fragonard, Delacroix, Goya, David, Lebrun, Reynolds, Gainsborough, and Renoir. Another apartment was set aside as a complete studio-laboratory for the restoration of works of art. There Rorimer acquired two binders with listings of all the paintings that had come to the ERR main restoration center at the monastery. They went to the Military Government detachment having Buxheim within its jurisdiction and explained the importance of the monastery as a repository of stolen art. They also arranged that the security guard already stationed about the monastery should remain until it was decided what would be done with the stored objects.
The next morning they set out on the 45-mile drive from Buxheim to the “the fairy-like castle of Neuschwanstein.” Planned by Ludwig II, the mad King of Bavaria, the castle, Skilton observed, occupied “the entire summit of a lofty peak rising abruptly from the valley floor like an island in a sea of mist-hung mountains.” At Fussen, they met with the Public Safety officer of the local Military Government detachment and then continued on their way to the castle.
“If we had been astonished at Buxheim,” Skilton wrote, “we were overwhelmed by the stupendous collection at Neuschwanstein.” At the castle, according to Rorimer, “Works of art were everywhere, most of them marked with Paris ciphers. Confusion indicated that this repository was being emptied when the Nazis had vanished a short time before the arrival of our troops.” Besides the confiscated paintings from France, there were 1,300 paintings which had been sent there by the Administration of Bavarian Castles. These were from the Munich museums, the Munich Residenz, and the private collections of the royal Bavarian Wittelsbach family, and had been deposited there before the place was used by the ERR. “In several of the rooms,” Rorimer wrote, “we found the art libraries of Paris collectors. Thrown behind and between the books were rare engravings, drawings, and paintings.” He added: “We were guided to a hidden, thick steel door; this one locked with two keys. Inside there were two large chests of world-famous Rothschild jewels and box upon box of jewel-encrusted metalwork. There were also rare manuscripts and more than a thousand pieces of silver from the David-Weill and other collections.” “There were,” according to Skilton, “rooms and rooms crammed with huge crates which had never been opened. Others overflowed with objects already removed from their case… In some places there were double and triple tiers of shelves laden with objects.”
As Rorimer looked through the castle, he later wrote, “I passed through the rooms as in a trance, hoping that the Germans had lived up to their reputation for being methodical and had photographs, catalogues and records of all these things. Without them it would take twenty years to identify the agglomeration of loot.” Fortunately the Germans did have such documentation and Rorimer and Skilton would find them.
They would find rooms set apart for the conservationists and a photographic laboratory. In one of the rooms of the castle used as an office by the ERR, they found the files of the art-looting task force, as well as an extensive library of art reference books. In filing cabinets they found ERR catalogues and individual records of the 203 private collections from France, including those of the Rothschilds and David-Weill. The private catalogues of the individual collectors, often the only record of their art possession, had been taken with the collections. These books gave the details of the shipments to the other ERR repositories. They also found 8,000 negatives and individual catalogue cards for the 21,903 recorded confiscations.
In two coal stoves there were charred documents. Rubber stamps in one stove had not been consumed and were helpful in locating additional information. Rorimer and Skilton discerned that the lettering on the rubber stamps indicated that they were used to indicate the location of other repositories. Works of art were first stamped with the ERR cipher and then with other letters representing the names of the repositories where they were to be stored throughout the war. A corresponding stamp appeared on the card index as well.
After two days at the castle, Rorimer and Skilton left, but not before ensuring for the security of the castle and its contents. Rorimer, after a quick trip to Berchtesgaden to inspect the Hermann Goering loot, returned to Neuschwanstein, accompanied by Lt. Charles Kuhn, USNR, MFA&A, Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF) and Australian Lt. Col. Aeneas John Lindsay McDonnell of the SHAEF Mission to France. At Fussen, Rorimer acquired from ERR staff member Dr. Gunther Schiedlausky, additional documentation, including summaries of the ERR activities in France and elsewhere, as well as originals and some copies of letters and orders from Adolf Hitler, Hermann Goering, Alfred Rosenberg, and others. This documentation would contribute to the better understanding the ERR operations and would facilitate restitution activities. The restitution of the treasures of Neuschwanstein, as will be seen in a future post, directly to France, would begin in October 1945. Skilton would be there to help.
Among the textual records used in writing this blog were ones from the following files:
- H Relations, Other Headquarters, General Records 1938-1948,(NAID 1560051) Property Division, Records of Central Collecting Points (“Ardelia Hall Collection”) OMGUS Headquarters Relating to the Central Collecting Points, Records of the Office of Military Government (U.S.) OMGUS, Records of United States Occupation Headquarters, World War II, Record Group 260 (Roll 2 of National Archives Microfilm Publication M-1941).
- 7c [Miscellaneous MFA&A Reports] 1945, General Records 1938-1948, (NAID 1560051) Property Division, Records of Central Collecting Points (“Ardelia Hall Collection”) OMGUS Headquarters Relating to the Central Collecting Points, Records of the Office of Military Government (U.S.) OMGUS, Record Group 260 (Roll 13 of National Archives Microfilm Publication M-1941).
- ETO-Monthly Reports for May and June [AMG-159], MFA&A Field Reports, 1943-1946 (NAID 1537270) Records of The American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in War Areas, Record Group 239 (Roll 72 of NARA Microfilm Publication M-1944).
Additionally, the following published sources were used:
- John D. Skilton, Jr., Memoirs of a Monuments Officer: Protecting European Artworks (Portland, Oregon: Inkwater Press, 2008), pp. 81-88, 90-93.
- James J. Rorimer, Survival: The salvage and protection of art in war (New York: Abelard Press, 1950), pp. 163-164, 181-186, 189-190.