KNOW // The Greatest Art Heist of All Time
Kate Haveles

Matt Damon and Cate Blanchett in The Monuments Men. Courtesy of Sony Pictures.

The upcoming movie The Monuments Men, which hits theaters February 7, is based on the untold true story of the small group of men and women working with the Allied armies to locate, protect and return to their rightful owners the countless works of art looted and confiscated by the Nazi forces, in addition to cataloguing and evacuating art works deemed to be at risk. Their mission was one of cultural protection and restoration, and they remained in Europe for up to six years after the war identifying stolen works, as well as organizing artistic events for the war-ravaged countries.

Monuments Men, led by James J. Rorimer, future director of the Metropolitan Museum, carry out recovered stolen art. Courtesy of Getty Images.

Degenerate Art show in Munich, 1937. Courtesy of Reuters.

At the beginning of Hitler’s rise to power, surrounding European governments began to recognize a cultural threat and scrambled to safeguard their national collections. Almost all modern art of the early to mid-twentieth century was labeled “degenerate” by the Nazi regime and banned; most notoriously, the Nazis put on a degenerate art exhibition in Munich in 1937 to showcase the art they found so offensively “un-German.” Any degenerate art seized by the Nazis was either sold at auction or destroyed. The next course of action for Hitler’s government was to identify all major works of art existing in Europe that were deemed to be of German origin, and move progressively to capture them so that they might be restored to their rightful homeland. They were also after classical masterpieces for Hitler’s fantasy museum in Linz, Austria, which was to be home to what he deemed the world’s finest art. Interestingly, a large part of the artworks looted from museum and larger private collections were taken under the premise of “protecting” them; the Nazis wanted to bring these timeless works under the wing of their self-proclaimed “superior” culture.

In response to the looting, museums around Europe catalogued and then crated up their collections to be stowed away in secret locations throughout the countryside. As German forces occupied more and more cities and countries however, more and more art was seized and redistributed. Following the occupation of France in 1940, Nazi forces redirected the efforts of the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg organization towards confiscating “ownerless” Jewish collections, and the art collections of the country were successively picked to shreds; some 21,000 works were either shipped back to Germany or stashed in various locations around France. This particular event is documented in The Monuments Men film, with the character Claire Simone portraying an intrepid custodian at the Jeu de Paume in Paris, which the Nazis took over for use as a storehouse of stolen art; she secretly followed the movements of art being shipped out of Paris and kept note of their new locations for future rescue.

Merkers salt mine packed with looted artwork, along with the majority of Germany’s gold and paper currency. Courtesy of National Archives.

Detailed map of salt mine stores of stolen artwork. Courtesy of Monuments Men Foundation.

In 1943, the US government, led by FDR, mobilized to aid in halting this widespread cultural desecration, and established the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in War Areas. Under the umbrella of this commission was the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives committee, nicknamed the Venus Fixers or, more commonly, the Monuments Men. The committee comprised a group of museum directors and curators, professors, architects, artists, and art historians, all relatively young men and women who volunteered to collaborate with the US army to carry out the highly ambitious mission of saving Europe’s great works. After the war, some of these Monuments Men went on to great careers in art, founding or serving such cultural institutions as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the MoMA, New York City Ballet, the National Gallery of Art, and the National Endowment for the Arts, to name just a few.

General Eisenhower ordered that the Allied Forces assist the MFAA in any and all possible ways, which often meant these art experts were thrust into the immediate dangers of combat, as they pushed into Nazi-occupied areas at the front lines with the Allied liberators. The discoveries they made as Hitler’s empire crumbled were astounding; albums fully cataloguing the art taken by the ERR, homes of Nazi sympathizers with huge collections stashed in empty rooms, mines loaded with stacks of paintings and other loot—including items like stained glass pulled down from cathedrals. The Monuments Men Foundation for the Preservation of Art is in fact still active today, searching for and relocating important documents regarding the thefts during the war and the works themselves.

General Eisenhower inspects stolen art in Merkerse salt mine, 1945. Courtesy of National Archives.

Despite the great efforts made during and after the war, by the late 1990s an estimated 100,000 works were still missing, many sadly believed to have been destroyed in bombings or, even more tragically, by people attempting to rid themselves of any evidence of theft. Art historians cite some of the most notable or valuable works missing to be Raphael’s “Portrait of a Young Man,” grabbed from the Czartoryski’s family collection in Krakow in 1939, and Andreas Schlüter’s 18th century Amber Room in the Catherine Palace Tsarskoye Selo, an extravagant room adorned with over six tons of amber, believed to have been broken up into pieces and carried off by the Nazis. Paintings by van Gogh, Bellini, Klimt, Rembrandt, Rubens and Degas have also been seemingly lost forever. Of the “degenerate art” seized by Hitler’s men, a massive cache was recently discovered in a dilapidated apartment in Munich, attributed to Cornelius Gurlitt, son of known-Nazi art dealer Hildebrand Gurlitt. An alleged 1,400 artworks were found crammed into the dirty old space, potentially worth up to $1 billion. During the war, a small fraction of this collection was held by the Monuments Men; when the war ended, Gurlitt insisted that the works were truly his own and they were eventually signed back over to him by Allied forces in 1950. The uncertainty surrounding the true ownership of the works at the time was in part due to the fact that Gurlitt had legally purchased a portion of the collection, albeit at auctions of Nazi-looted artwork. Gurlitt had been appointed by Hitler to gather art from around Europe for the proposed museum in Linz, but a large part of his personal collection was the “degenerate art” rejected by the Reich, including work by modern masters Chagall, Matisse, Picasso and Beckmann. The German government still has yet to release a full list of the works in the Gurlitt collection, but there is hope that this discovery will lead to the further discovery and restoration of thousands of stolen artworks.

Inventory list from an ERR album. Courtesy of Monuments Men Foundation.