18. A Treasure Trove of Plundered Art

By Callie Belback

During the Second World War, as European cities fell to the Nazis, art conservators in the United States began to advocate for a field-based conservation corps whose duty would be to identify and protect cultural treasures. This soon became the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Section of the Allies (MFA). The MFA corps served in the field alongside combat soldiers.

During the war, the Nazis appropriated the Jeu de Paume Museum in Paris, France. It was here that the Nazis stored a fraction of their plundered art. To help oversee the artwork, they retained Rosa Valland, a museum employee—but did not realize Valland could speak German. She kept a detailed record of the stolen artwork and where the pieces were kept. After the liberation of Paris in 1944, Valland began to assist the MFA corps in recovering the treasures.

As Allied Forces advanced across Europe, they found art pieces in mines and castles across Germany and Austria. The MFA corps uncovered many hiding places—including Herman Göring’s personal collection, which included more than 1,000 items and totalled more than $200 million dollars—the equivalent of $3.3 billion today.

In 1945, the MFA ‘Monuments Men’ established two primary collecting points in Munich and Wiesbaden. Rediscovered art pieces were inventoried, stored, and prepared for shipment at these locations. The picture above shows the first collection of recovered artworks sent back to France from the Wiesbaden collection point on May 24, 1946. Many pieces were found and recovered. However, many are still missing—sitting in dusty and dark places, just waiting to be uncovered.[1]

[1] Smithsonian Archives of American Art. “Monuments Men: On the Front Line to Save Europe’s Art, 1942-1946.” Exhibitions-Interactive. April 20, 2014. https://www.aaa.si.edu/exhibitions/monuments-men/exhibition-interactive

Image credit: Photograph 3, May 24, 1946. Photograph 3. Box 4, Folder 18: Packing and Loading Art Restitution Shipment to France, 1946, Thomas Carr Howe Papers, 1932-1984, Smithsonian Archives of American Art, Washington D.C. https://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/thomas-carr-howe-papers-7812/subseries-6-1/box-4-folder-18

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