The Art of War: Deacquisitioning the Nazi Art Loot

“Crawling though the opening into the hidden room, I was at once forcibly struck with the realization that this was no ordinary depository of works of art.
The place had the aspect of a shrine.”‘

George Clooney’s newest film, Monuments Men, follows the exploits of an Allied platoon of seven “Monuments Men” who enter Germany during the end of World War II to rescue art stolen by the Nazis. The movie is based off of the real life “Monuments Men,” a group of more than 300 men and women from thirteen countries who worked together to protect and recover the stolen cultural artifacts. Their ranks ranged from museum directors to architects — and they would ultimately help return more than five million artistic and cultural items plundered by the Nazis.

George Clooney’s film is loosely based on the story of the men in the department was known as the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program, created in 1943, after the director of the Museum of Modern Art, who took his concerns about the destruction of European art to the White House. Shortly after, FDR established the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in War Areas, which in turn created the MFAA.

Captain Walker K. Hancock, a specialist with the MFAA, recalls discovering a room walled up behind bricks inside one salt mine:

Crawling though the opening into the hidden room, I was at once forcibly struck with the realization that this was no ordinary depository of works of art. The place had the aspect of a shrine. Two hundred and seventy-one artworks, many of them 18th-century court portraits and paintings apparently from the Sans Souci palace at Potsdam, lay scattered about. here were also several works of Lukas Cranach the Elder from a 1937 Berlin exhibition, and works by noted artists Boucher, Watteau, and Chardin. On the right of the central passageway were three wooden coins, with the identifications indicating they contained the Hindenburgs and Frederick William I. In the last compartment on the left was the great metal casket of Frederick the Great.

The efforts of 365 MFAA heroes salvaged thousands of artworks, many of which were restored to their rightful owners or their surviving kin. For more information, read Robert Edsel’s book, The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History, or Ilaria Dagnini Brey’s The Venus Fixers: The Remarkable Story of the Allied Soldiers Who Saved Italy’s Art During World War II. Or, just watch the movie version tonight, I suppose.

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