The Monuments Men in August 1945: The Belgian Treasures

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

In May 1945, elements of the Third U.S. Army reached and captured the mine at Alt Aussee, Austria, which the Germans had used to store looted cultural treasures. They were quickly followed by Third U.S. Army Monuments Men (Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives (MFA&A) specialists), Capt. Robert K. Posey and Cpl. Lincoln Kirstein, who, on May 18, inspected the contents of the mine. It did not take them long to determine that Alt Aussee, contained “the very cream of the ‘loot’ from France, Belgium and the Netherlands.” Shortly thereafter, the Assistant Chief of Staff, G-5, Third U.S. Army requested the services of Lt. George Stout, USNR, MFA&A, 12th Army Group to assist and consult regarding the German art repositories in the Bad Ischel region, especially those at Alt Aussee and one near Laufen. He departed 12th Army HQ at 9:30am on May 20. At Alt Aussee, Stout learned from records of the German officials what was stored in the mine. From these, Stout reported the contents of the mine consisted of 6,577 paintings; 230 drawings and watercolors; 954 prints; 137 pieces of sculpture; 128 pieces of arms and armor; 79 baskets of objects; 484 cases of unknown objects presumed to be archives in part; 78 pieces of furniture; 122 tapestries; 181 cases of books; 1,200 to 1,700 cases apparently containing books or similar matter; and 283 cases, contents of which were entirely unknown.

Among the mine contents were important and famous looted Belgian works such as the two wings of the Dirk Bouts triptych altar-piece from Louvain (1464-1467); Michelangelo’s sculpture of the Madonna and Child from Bruges (1501), eleven other pictures from the Church of Notre Dame at Bruges; and the huge polytych of the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb (Ghent Altarpiece, 1432) by the Flemish artists Jan and Hubert Van Eyck from the Cathedral of St. Bavo in Ghent. The Michelangelo Madonna and Child went to Bruges in the early 16th century and remained there until September 8, 1944, when the Germans took it as the Allies approached. They also took eleven paintings belonging to the church. Among them were works by Gerard David, Van Dyck, and Caravaggio. They were all brought to the Alt Aussee mine. In May 1940, the Belgians entrusted the Ghent Altarpiece to the custody of Jacques Jaujard, Director of the French National Museums, for safekeeping. It was stored in the Chateau of Pau together with many important works of art from the Louvre. Next, it was removed to Paris in the summer of 1942 and not long afterwards moved by the Germans to Neuschwanstein castle in Bavaria, where it stayed until it was brought to Alt Aussee in the late summer or early autumn of 1944.

The restitution issue, which had been raised in mid-May by several countries, was raised again in late June. On June 23, the Chief of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF) Mission to Belgium wrote the SHAEF G-5 that it was well known about the Bruges items and other Belgian items being recovered in the mine at Alt Aussee. He wrote that the circumstances surrounding the removal of the treasures to Germany was also known, and that they were clearly the property of Belgium. He noted that the Belgian Government had already requested the return of the treasures, and they had expressed their willingness to assume full responsibility for packing and transport. Therefore, he added, he strongly urged that the treasures be immediately released to the Belgian Government. He stated that by allowing the Belgian Government to fetch their treasures any damage which might arise during the journey could not implicate the Military authorities.

On July 1, the SHAEF G-5 responded that the contents of Alt Aussee were presently being moved to Munich and that it was estimated that the move operation would be completed by the beginning of August. Thus, the earliest date when the handing over of the Belgian treasure could take place was the middle of August. He added that the SHAEF Mission (Belgium) letter would be sent to the United States Group Control Council (Germany) (USGCC) with a recommendation that it should be given sympathetic consideration and that the Belgian Government and Jaujard, to whose care the Belgians originally handed over the Ghent Altarpiece, should be kept informed as to the earliest moment that the release could be made.

The next day, July 2, Lt. Col. Geoffrey Webb, Adviser, MFA&A, G-5 Division, SHAEF reported that in the opinion of SHAEF’s MFA&A Section, it was desirable that Military Government should be relieved of the responsibility for such very important objects [at Alt Aussee] as soon as it was possible without prejudicing future policy on restitution. He believed that the return of the Belgian treasures which were all public and church property and whose ownership was unquestioned could not prejudice the policy of the United States on restitution and would be reassuring to the Belgians. The same day, the Chief, Internal Affairs Branch, G-5 Division, SHAEF wrote USGCC that Alt Aussee was being evacuated to the Munich Central Collection Point and should be completed by August 1. He added that it may require two or three weeks to assemble the objects, and to have them in readiness for the Belgian representatives to receive and pack. In the opinion of SHAEF’s MFA&A Section, he wrote, it was desirable, in view of the great importance of the objects, to return them to the Belgian Government as soon as possible, thus relieving Military Government of the great responsibility of their care.

The Director of the Reparations, Deliveries and Restitution Division, USGCC informed the Deputy Military Governor Lt. Gen. Lucius Clay on July 7 that numerous inquiries had been received from, and conferences held with representatives of liberated European countries on the subject of restitution. “There is,” he wrote, “a growing demand for the early return of identifiable looted objects, especially works of art and equipment urgently needed for economic rehabilitation.”

In mid-July, Monuments Men Lt. Thomas Carr Howe, Jr., USNR and 2nd Lt. Lamont Moore were sent to Alt Aussee to help Stout with evacuation. During the remainder of the month the movement of the contents of the Alt Aussee mine to the Munich Central Collecting Point continued with Howe and Moore helping to pack the items, including the Ghent Altarpiece and Michelangelo’s Madonna from Bruges.

Not waiting for the new restitution policies to be implemented, because of the desire to relieve the Americans of the responsibility of having to deal with valuable cultural properties and to show the Allies that the Americans were serious about restitutions, on August 11, General of the Army Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Military Governor and Commanding General of the United States Forces European Theater (USFET), undoubtedly at Clay’s prompting, requested immediate restitution of the Ghent Altarpiece to authorized representatives of the Belgian Government through USFET Mission to Belgium.

The delivery of the Ghent Altarpiece, consisting of seventeen panels, then in the Munich Central Collecting Point, would be made by high priority plane. Very quickly the Third U. S. Army was directed to fly the altarpiece from Munich to Brussels on August 21. Maj. L. Bancel LaFarge, Chief, MFA&A Sub-section, Reparations, Deliveries and Restitution Section, Economics Branch, G-5 Division, USFET, was ordered by ACS G-5 USFET on August 19 to go to Brussels to assist the United States Ambassador to Belgium, through USFET Mission to Belgium, in making arrangements for the transfer of custody of the Ghent Altarpiece to Belgian authorities and for such official ceremony as might be planned. He arrived at Brussels airstrip on August 21, at 11:15am in an L-5 aircraft. Howe, Moore, and fellow Monuments Man 2nd Lt. Stephen Kovalyak, supervised the loading of the ten precious cases, packed the seventeen panels, and oversaw their transport from the Munich Central Collecting Point to the airport.

The specially chartered C-54 plane with the cases, under the charge of Capt. Robert K. Posey, arrived from Munich at 3pm. The ten cases were unloaded and stored in the USFET Mission building for the night because of the lateness of the hour. At 11am August 22, they were delivered to the Royal Palace, unpacked by Belgian art experts, and laid out on the large table in the State Dining Room for examination. At 2pm the Belgians signed the receipt. LaFarge returned to Brussels at 3:30pm September 2 in the company of Lt. Col. Mason Hammond, Chief of MFA&A Branch USGCC and Capt. Calvin Hathaway, his assistant, for the official ceremony that took place at the Royal Palace on September 3. The painting, reassembled in its frame, was exhibited to the press. This was the first restitution of a major work of art to Belgium and was the first important restitution of a work of art. More important restitutions would be made in the following months, including that of the Michelangelo Madonna and Child from Bruges.


Sources:

  • 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 (The Roberts Commission), RG 239 (Roll 72 of NARA Microfilm Publication M-1944).
  • 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, RG 260 (Roll 2 of NARA Microfilm Publication M-1941)
  • 24 Cables, Outgoing, 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, RG 260 (Roll 21 of NARA Microfilm Publication M-1941)
  • 312.1 Miscellaneous Correspondence, RD&R Division USGCC 1945, General Correspondence (Central Files), 1944-1949, (NAID 6923852) Records of the Economic Division, Records of the Office of Military Government (U.S.) OMGUS, Records of United States Occupation Headquarters, World War II, RG 260.
  • 007 1945, General Correspondence (Transition Files), 1944-1946, (NAID 6923844) Records of the Economic Division, Records of the Office of Military Government (U.S.) OMGUS, Records of United States Occupation Headquarters, World War II, RG 260.
  • 17.10 Historical Reports-Third U.S. Army, May and June, 1945, Numeric-Subject Operations File 1943-July 1945, (NAID 611522) Historical Section, Information Branch, G-5 Division, General Staff, Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Forces (SHAEF), Allied Operational and Occupation Headquarters, World War II, RG 331.
  • AMG 214 MFA&A: General Correspondence, Subject File Aug 1943-1945, (NAID 612714)  Monuments, Fine Arts & Archives Section, Operations Branch, G-5 Division, General Staff, Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Forces (SHAEF), Allied Operational and Occupation Headquarters, World War II, RG 331.
  • AMG 232, MFA&A Intelligence: General, Subject File Aug 1943-1945, (NAID 612714)  Monuments, Fine Arts & Archives Section, Operations Branch, G-5 Division, General Staff, Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Forces (SHAEF), Allied Operational and Occupation Headquarters, World War II, RG 331
  • SHAEF/G-5/751, Public Monuments-Fine Art, Numeric File Aug 1943-Jul 1945, (NAID 610059) Secretariat, G-5 Division, General Staff, Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Forces (SHAEF), Allied Operational and Occupation Headquarters, World War II, RG 331.
  • Thomas Carr Howe, Jr., Salt Mines and Castles: The Discovery and Restitution of Looted European Art (Indianapolis and New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Publishers, 1946), pp. 131, 143, 144, 145, 146, 148-177, 244.
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