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Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Monuments Men at the Archives of American Art

Blogs across the Smithsonian will give an inside look at the Institution’s archival collections and practices during a month long blogathon in celebration of October’s American Archives Month. See additional posts from our other participating blogs, as well as related events and resources, on the Smithsonian’s Archives Month website.

Gardens of Versailles draped in camouflage during World War II
Well, another year and another Archives Month in a long career as an archivist. Yet, the power of primary sources and their ability to tell us stories that connect us to our collective cultural heritage still amazes and excites me.

This year’s theme for Archives Month is Hidden Treasures and here at the Archives of American Art, I discovered several collections that literally tell a story about hidden (and hiding) treasures. As background research for a foundation grant proposal to support the archival processing of AAA’s collections that are related to World War II-era art provenance research, I came across the papers and oral histories of several “soldiers” who served in World War II in the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives section of the U.S. Army.  

Men preparing an Aristide Maillol sculpture for transport
This group of unlikely heroes was composed of scholars from around the world who traveled to Europe with the Allied troops with the primary mission of identifying and protecting monuments and other cultural heritage sites from Allied bombing, and to document damages to the same. These were not men assigned to desk duty, these were soldiers who served on the front lines alongside other fighting troops. To quote from an Archives of American Art oral history interview with Monuments Man and sculptor Walker Hancock, conducted in 1977, Hancock states there was “a general awareness among all intelligent people, Army officers included, that this was going to be the most destructive war in history, and that something had to be done to save a fraction of the endangered objects of our culture.”   

Towards the end of the war, the mission of the Monuments Men changed significantly from identification and protection to one of locating, recovering, and restoring to proper owners art works and other cultural objects that had been systematically looted by the Nazis -- the extent of which was staggering. The Monuments Men located treasure troves of stolen art and artifacts hidden all across Germany, Bavaria, and Austria – some in castles and others buried in “salt mines.” They saved and recovered some of the greatest works of art in the history of Western civilization, including Jan Van Eyk’s Ghent Altarpiece Adoration of the Mystic Lamb and Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child.

Cases of jewelry confiscated from Maurice Rothschild by the Nazis
So, who were these unlikely scholars and artists turned soldiers and heroes?  Most were considered experts in their respective areas of study and many went on to become curators, conservators, and arts administrators for some of the most prestigious arts institutions in our country.  The Archives of American Art collected their papers primarily because of their later careers, but individually and collectively these collections also tell us another facet of art history.   

The personal archives and oral history interviews of several members of the unit, including George Stout, Thomas Carr Howe, James Rorimer, Walter William Horn, Walker Hancock, S. Lane Faison, and others tell this fascinating story in archival documents, photographs, and sound recordings (many with transcripts available online).

-- Barbara Aikens is the Chief of Collections Processing at the Archives of American Art.


  1. Hi there. Thank you for this article. I wanted to let you know that the American Jewish Historical Society recently received the papers of Col. Pomrenze, who was the head of the Offenbach Archival Depot (OAD). I just thought you'd like to see his collection finding guide, some of which will be going online soon.
    We will also post your article on our Facebook page. Our Emma Lazarus Dinner this year is being held in honor of Henry Ettlinger and Col. Pomrenze, both from the MFAA.

  2. Tanya, thanks so much for taking the time to comment. It really is amazing to me the extent of archival materials scattered in various repositories that document the work of the Monuments Men. And, I'm sure that your repository, like ours, collected the papers for their later careers. The National Gallery of Art has related collections as well, and has also digitized quite a bit of material. Hmmmm.....did I hear the word collaboration??? Wouldn't it be great if we could gather all of the finding aids and supporting digital content on one website?

    Barbara Aikens
    Chief, Collections Processing
    Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution