The Monuments Men in September and October 1945: Restitutions

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

On September 13, General of the Army Dwight D. Eisenhower (the Military Governor of the American Zone of Germany and Commander of U.S. Forces European Theater (USFET)) as part of his program to get the restitution program moving, although there was no formal restitution policies and procedures, directed the sending to Paris by United States vehicles as soon as possible 50 selected paintings from easily identified private French looted works of art.  At the Munich Central Collecting Point, its director Lt. Craig Hugh Smyth, USNR, selected 71 masterpieces looted from French private collections. The group included works by Fragonard, Chardin, Lancret, Rubens, Van Dyck, Hals, and a large number of seventeenth century Dutch masters.  Lt. J. H. Coulter, USNR, who worked with Smyth at the collecting point, was the emissary appointed to accompany the paintings to Paris. On September 20 two U.S. Army trucks left Munich for Paris and the works of art were delivered to the Musee du Jeu de Paume; making this the first formal restitution to the French.

In September Maj. Bancel LaFarge, Chief, MFA&A [Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives] Subsection, USFET, decided that Lt. Thomas C. Howe, Jr., USNR, would return from his cultural property evacuation activities, to USFET Headquarters at Frankfurt as Deputy Chief and that Lieutenants Lamont Moore, Stephen Kovalyak, and another officer, new to MFAA work, were to resume the evacuation of the salt mine at Alt Aussee, Austria.  About this time, before Moore and Kovalyak left, there was another important shipment to be made to Belgium. It was to include the Michelangelo Madonna, the eleven paintings stolen from the church in Bruges when the statue was taken, and the panels by Dirk Bouts from the famous altarpiece in the church of St. Pierre at Louvain. These panels, which formed the wings of the altarpiece, had been removed by the Germans in August 1942.  This shipment to Belgium was the first restitution where the recipient nation came to the Munich Central Collecting Point to collect its property.  Howe, Moore, and Kovalyak loaded it into the truck on September 22, and it was soon on its way.

The Belgians had no sooner left when the French and Dutch representatives arrived.  On September 27, Lt. Col. Alphonse Petrus Antonius Vorenkamp, Royal Netherland Forces (and former professor of art history at Smith College), arrived at the Munich Central Collecting Point to begin his stay as official representative of the Netherlands Government to facilitate restitutions.  Also arriving that day was Capt. Hubert de Brye, a French Army officer, who was to be in charge of arranging transport for future shipments to France, both from Munich and from Füssen/Neuschwanstein.

At the end of September General Eisenhower directed the preparation of the air delivery to the Netherlands, approximately 25 looted Dutch works of art of highest quality.  LaFarge told Howe about the token restitution to the Netherlands, that the Dutch were then selecting items, and that the United States would provide a plane to fly them to Amsterdam.  He wanted Howe to be present for the transfer.  Howe departed Frankfurt for Amsterdam the second week of October to arrange for the transfer.  On October 10, 27 paintings held by the Munich Central Collecting Point, including works by Rubens, Van Gogh, and Rembrandt, that had been liberated by the Third U.S. Army from Hitler and Goering Collections, were flown in a special U.S. Army air transport to the Netherlands, accompanied by Vorenkamp.  There they were transported immediately to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and turned over to the Dutch authorities.  On October 19 the second load for the Netherlands left Munich, transported in Dutch trucks.

During the first week in October Eisenhower authorized and requested as soon as possible a token restitution to Czechoslovakia of stolen cultural objects.  Already, on September 29 USFET had made plans when instructions were issued that a token restitution of stolen cultural materials to Czechoslovakia be made on or about October 9, at Schloss Banz. The famous fourteenth century altarpiece by the Master of Hohenfurt, found in the Alt Aussee saltmine and moved to the Munich Central Collecting Point, and approximately 18 cases of objects from the Army Museum, Prague, then at Schloss Banz, were to be assembled by October 9 ready for transfer to the Czechs. Within a few days 1st Lt. Walter Horn , Chief, Intelligence Unit, MFA&A USFET, left for Schloss Banz to effect the transfer of the looted works to accredited representatives of the Czechoslovakian government. When two military officers from the Czech Ministry of National Defense came to USFET Headquarters the MFA&A officers arranged for them to proceed to Schloss Banz, where they were met by Horn. While the Czech officers were en route, Capt. Edwin C.  Rae, Regional, MFA&A Officer, Office of Military Government for Bavaria, was directed to arrange for the delivery of the Hohenfurth panels to Schloss Banz. He designated Lt. Cmdr. Coulter to transport them from Munich, which he did on October 8. This joint operation was carried out successfully.

In early October the American military authorities pretty much determined that many items at the Neuschwanstein castle could be returned directly by rail to France from Füssen, 2.5 miles west of the castle.  In preparation for the move, at Munich Capt. Edward E. Adams, director of the MFA&A Evaluation Team for Upper Bavaria wrote LaFarge and Rae, that based on interviews with people at Füssen and other places, the road leading to the castle was a narrow winding road but appeared to be passable except in extremely snowy or freezing weather. Adams wrote that the court yard could accommodate four trucks and still provide a turn-around space. He indicated that loading facilities at the castle were very poor. The crates for the pictures and furniture provided adequate protection against breakage but would offer little protection against rain or snow.  He believed that extremely large crates may require special trailer trucks to move them all the way to Paris.  He also indicated that a large number of the crates did not bear the ERR (Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg) marking and that a fairly large book collection and a considerable quantity of ceramics, statuary, glass, furniture and carpets were not clearly marked. The crates, he wrote, were scattered throughout the building on several floors, and that all were not clearly marked and many were stacked in deep piles in narrow rooms. These conditions, Adams warned, would cause considerable time to be spent in checking identification marks and arranging the crates in an orderly manner for prompt loading in the trucks.

Adams estimated that approximately 25 railway cars would be required to transport the crated material and approximately 8 additional cars would be required for the uncrated items. Shipments, he suggested, should be made in full trains of 10 cars each, the first movement to depart about October 15.  He expressed the need to complete the operation before the bad weather began and therefore he indicated that it was imperative that all phases of the work be executed in the shortest possible time.

Captain Adams recommend that an experienced evacuation team be put in charge of checking the crates with the Munich Central Collecting Point records, spot checking the crates, supervising the loadings, and arranging the order of shipment.  He indicated that the loading list, which would be an itemized list attached to the final receipt, needed to be prepared at the castle as the trucks were loaded.  Additionally, he recommended that the present movement include only the crated items that were readily identifiable. This, he estimated, would amount to approximately three-quarters of the collection. Questionable items and those requiring crating should be prepared at the castle immediately after the main shipment was made and then forwarded as soon as possible to the proper owners as shipping conditions permit. He recommended that the evacuation team proceed at once to the castle to check the markings on the crates and prepare a list which could be coordinated with the collecting point records. This list could then be used for reference in preparing the loading list and final receipt at the castle.

On October 8 General Eisenhower authorized the Commanding General, Eastern Military District to start the immediate evacuation and restitution direct to France of crated works of art from Schloss Neuschwanstein.  Cases readily identifiable by marking as of French origin were to be loaded without inspection of their contents.  Schedule “A” of authorized receipt form would comprise shipping list of cases numbered in sequence without description of their contents. Additionally, the remaining not easily identifiable cases would be shipped only with concurrence of the three foreign art representatives attached to Office of Military Government (OMG) for Bavaria.

Special evacuation personnel, dispatched to Neuschwanstein by OMG for Bavaria, were charged with the responsibility of crating the remainder and evacuating all objects by railway to France. The evacuation team consisted of Capt. Edward Adams, Lt.( jg) Charles Parkhurst, USNR, and Capt. Brye, the French Army officer at Munich. The latter left Munich on October 19 to Füssen to be present at the evacuation.  On October 16, 2nd Lt. John D. Skilton, Jr. was sent from Würzburg to Füssen to help with the move. He returned to Würzburg on October 26.  During October, a curator from the Munich Central Collecting Point was sent to Neuschwanstein to assist in making a spot check of the crates to determine the accuracy of the records that were being used to identify the property.

At Schloss Neuschwanstein the loading began October 17 and was completed on October 24.  Fifty-two truckloads consisting of 634 crates of art objects were moved from the castle –  over a steep narrow winding mountain road – to the railroad siding at Füssen 4.2 miles away. The first trainload left Füssen for Paris on October 25. The train consisted of 2 personnel cars, a utility emergency car, 17 fully loaded closed cars, and one flat car. The latter car was required to carry one extremely large picture which was packed in a weather proof crate attached to a special scaffold nailed to the floor of the car.  A second shipment, consisting of paintings, small statuary, glass, porcelain, furniture, tapestries, and carpets were then prepared for transport.  Forty-one truck loads, with 446 crates, were moved from the castle to the railroad siding.  The second trainload left Füssen for Paris on November 24, with 15 car trains.  Thirteen cars were fully loaded freight cars and 2 cars for personnel of the French security guard. At the end of November, nine truckloads of 141 crates of cultural property were moved from the castle to Füssen. From there, the third and last shipment of  ERR looted French art objects stored at the castle, left for Paris on December 3, with four fully loaded freight cars and one personnel car for the French security escort.  In all 1,221 cases were returned from Füssen directly to France.

Restitution efforts continued in the American Zone of Occupation.  It was a mammoth undertaking.  By the end of November 1948, the Americans had restituted nearly 1.7 million items to countries outside of Germany and had returned over 1.7 million items to Germans.  At that point there were still hundreds of thousands of pieces to be returned or restituted.  Undoubtedly, the Monuments Men looked back at their work with a sense of accomplishing much, but desiring that they could have done more.

Now, seventy years after the end of World War II, the Monuments Men and their work are being recognized by the United States Congress, when, on October 22, 2015, the Monuments Men will be presented with a Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor the United States Congress can bestow. On September 29 Speaker of the House John Boehner issued a press release stating: “On Thursday, October 22, leaders of the U.S. House and Senate will present a Congressional Gold Medal in recognition of the Monuments Men, a group of men and women who protected and recovered historical sites and cultural artifacts during World War II.” He added that “without their efforts, thousands of works of art and monuments of history that created the rich cultural history in Europe would have been lost forever.”  The ceremony will take place at 3 p.m. in Emancipation Hall and will be live streamed. Please click here for the press release.


Sources used:

  • File: Netherlands Reports, Subject Files, 1940-1946 (NAID 1537311), Records of the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historical Monuments in War Areas, RG 239 (Roll 90 of National Archives Microfilm Publication M-1944).
  • File: 312.1 Miscellaneous Correspondence, MFA&A Econ Br G-5 USFET 1945 (NAID 7193740), Central Files, 1945-1949, Records of United States Occupation Headquarters, World War II, RG 260.
  • File: 24 Cables, Outgoing, General Records, 1938-1948 (NAID 1560051), Records of Central Collecting Points (“Ardelia Hall Collection”), Records of United States Occupation Headquarters, World War II, RG 260 (Roll 21 of National Archives Microfilm Publication M-1941).
  • File: November 1945 Monthly Report on Monuments Fine Arts and Archives Eastern Military District-Third United States Army, Activity Reports, 1945 (NAID 1561462), Property Division, Records of Central Collecting Points (“Ardelia Hall Collection”), Records of United States Occupation Headquarters, World War II, RG 260 (Roll 32 of National Archives Microfilm Publication M-1941).
  • File: December 1945 Monthly Report on Monuments Fine Arts and Archives Land Bavaria-Third United States Army, Activity Reports, 1945 (NAID 1561462), Property Division, Records of Central Collecting Points (“Ardelia Hall Collection”), Records of United States Occupation Headquarters, World War II, RG 260 (Roll 33 of National Archives Microfilm Publication M-1941).
  • File: 7c [Miscellaneous MFA&A Reports] 1945, General Records, 1938-1948 (NAID 1560051), Records of Central Collecting Points (“Ardelia Hall Collection”), Records of United States Occupation Headquarters, World War II, RG 260 (Roll 13 of National Archives Microfilm Publication M-1941).
  • File: Monthly Report: United States Forces European Theater, October 1945-November 1945, Activity Reports, 1945-1951 (NAID 2435804), Records of the Wiesbaden Central Collecting Point, Records of United States Occupation Headquarters, World War II, RG 260 (Roll 54 of National Archives Microfilm Publication M-1947).
  • File: Monthly Report: United States Forces European Theater, December 1945-February 1946, Activity Reports, 1945-1951 (NAID 2435804), Records of the Wiesbaden Central Collecting Point, Records of United States Occupation Headquarters, World War II, RG 260 (Roll 54 of National Archives Microfilm Publication M-1947).
  • File: 007 1945 (NAID 7248132), General Correspondence (Transition Files), 1944-1946, Records of United States Occupation Headquarters, World War II, RG 260.
  • File: Final Report-Reparations and Restitution (NAID 7492811), Reports and Related Records Relating to Restitution, 1945-1950, Records of United States Occupation Headquarters, World War II, RG 260.
  • 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. 240, 245, 254-256, 260-261, 266, 269-270.
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