The Monuments Men at the Met: Treasures Saved During World War II

The Monuments Men were 345 men and women, representing thirteen nations, who volunteered for service in the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program, or MFAA, during World War II. James Rorimer, a Monuments Man who eventually became the Met's director, played a pivotal role in the MFAA's efforts.

In a race against time, and under mandate from President Franklin D. Roosevelt and General Dwight D. Eisenhower, this group of unlikely heroes—museum directors, curators, art scholars, educators, artists, architects, and archivists—risked their lives on the front lines and worked tirelessly to protect Europe's monuments and greatest cultural treasures from both the destruction of the war and seizure by Hitler and the Nazis. Without vehicles, typewriters, or full authority, they managed to track, locate, and return more than five million looted cultural items. Their role in preserving these treasures stands without precedent.

Use the following itinerary, complemented by writings from Monuments Men historians and James Rorimer himself, to discover eleven works of art that narrowly escaped destruction and were restituted to their rightful owners. Without the courage, determination, and foresight of the Monuments Men, these important paintings would not be in the Met's collection today.

This itinerary was produced in conjunction with the February 2014 release of the feature film The Monuments Men.

Tour stops (11)

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    Jean Siméon Chardin, Soap Bubbles

    In a special meeting held at the Met in 1941, the Fogg Art Museum's associate director Paul Sachs addressed the war and its impact on the arts community: "If, in time of peace, our museums and art galleries are important to the community, in time of war they are doubly valuable. For then, when the petty and the trivial fall way and we are face to face with final and lasting values, we...must summon to our defense all our intellectual and spiritual resources. We must guard jealously all we have inherited from a long past, all we are capable of creating in a trying present, and all we are determined to preserve in a foreseeable future. Art is the imperishable and dynamic expression of these aims. It is, and always has been, the visible evidence of the activity of free minds."

    "Minutes of a Special Meeting of the Association of Museum Directors on the Problems of Protection and Defense held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art," pp. 134–135, RG 7, Box 77, Publications, Metropolitan Museum, Conservation of Cultural Resources, Defense, Gallery Archives, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

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    Giovanni di Paolo (Giovanni di Paolo di Grazia), The Adoration of the Magi

    The MFAA was established in 1943 to protect Europe's cultural treasures. Met curator James Rorimer was one of the many men and women selected to serve. According to historian Robert Edsel, "To most soldiers, war was circumstance. But to someone like James Rorimer, it was the mission of a lifetime. Hitler had fired a shot across the bow of the art world in 1939, when the blitzkrieg of Poland included units tasked with the deliberate theft of art and destruction of that country's cultural monuments. [...] James Rorimer had no intention of sitting at a desk while art history was unfolding before him."

    Robert Edsel, The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History (New York: Center Street, 2010), 74–75.

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    Thomas de Keyser, A Musician and His Daughter

    In 1944, as James Rorimer and other Monuments Men reported for duty, the situation throughout Europe was worsening. According to historian Lynn H. Nicholas, "Those who had managed to flee before the borders closed left houses full of possessions behind, which were quickly stripped by SS troops or the neighbors. Those who remained were soon required to register their property with the Gestapo, thus providing excellent inventories for future confiscation. No one could be trusted."

    Lynn H. Nicholas, The Rape of Europa: The Fate of Europe's Treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War (New York: Vintage Books, 1995), 39.

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    Jan van der Heyden, The Huis ten Bosch at The Hague and Its Formal Garden (View from the East)

    As James Rorimer later recounted in his book, "The mere recording of the damage that had been done to the monuments and other art treasures would be a thankless task [...] The attempt to record this damage amid the many gaping craters and fire-swept hulks of buildings would be like trying to scoop up wine from a broken keg."

    James J. Rorimer, Survival: The Salvage and Protection of Art in War (New York: Abelard Press Inc., 1950), 2.

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    David Teniers the Younger, Guardroom with the Deliverance of Saint Peter

    The MFAA's goal was to save all monuments, artworks, and objects, regardless of their country of origin. As Edsel writes, "To save the culture of your allies is a small thing. To cherish the culture of your enemy, to risk your life and the life of other men to save it, to give it all back to them as soon as the battle was won...it was unheard of, but that is exactly what [American sculptor] Walker Hancock and the other Monuments Men intended to do. [...] It couldn't be just a duty; it had to be a passion. And the more Hancock saw of destruction, the more passionate he became."

    Edsel, The Monuments Men, 254–255.

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    Abraham van Beyeren, Still Life with Lobster and Fruit

    The aftermath of the war proved to be challenging for the Monuments Men. According to Edsel, "The end of active hostilities was not the end of the Monuments Men's work. Not by far. As the situation at Altaussee demonstrated, finding looted Nazi treasures was just the first step of a very long process. The treasures had to be inspected and catalogued, then packed and shipped out of the mines, castles, monasteries, or simple holes in the ground where they had been stored. [...] And almost every day, army units stumbled upon unfathomable treasures hidden in basements, traincars, food caches, and oil barrels."

    Edsel, The Monuments Men, 391.

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    Jan Weenix, Gamepiece with a Dead Heron ("Falconer's Bag")

    Utilizing a former Nazi administration building, Rorimer helped to establish a central location in Germany to process the many discoveries. As Nicholas writes, "Soon streams of art were flowing in both directions at the Munich Collecting Point. [...] In the midst of it all, Rorimer […] became the first Monuments man to receive the Legion of Honor."

    Nicholas, The Rape of Europa, 409.

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    Jan van Goyen, Castle by a River

    Rorimer later described the sheer amount of looted artwork found in Europe: "Works of art could no longer be thought of in ordinary terms—a roomful, a carload, a castle full, were the quantities we had to reckon with."

    Rorimer, Survival, 181–182.

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    Philips Koninck, Wide River Landscape

    Even after Rorimer returned to New York, and later served as director of the Metropolitan Museum, he paid homage to his years as a member of the Monuments Men by "[wearing] his army combat boots almost every day, even to work, and even with tuxedos and suits."

    Edsel, The Monuments Men, 418.

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    Claude Monet, The Parc Monceau

    In 1947, Rorimer told Cue magazine: "We started out to preserve monuments and to promote better relations. We ended up catching thieves and their loot. I got to Paris on liberation day, and from that day forward I had to keep my eyes and ears open trying to find what big and little looters had taken. Whenever I got to a new place the first thing I poked into was the incinerator. More often than not there'd be revealing records in it."

    Cue, July 5, 1947. Excerpt reprinted in "James R. Rorimer," The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 25, No. 1, Part II (Summer 1966), 52.

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    Gustav Klimt, Mäda Primavesi (1903–2000)

    The lessons Rorimer learned as an officer served him well throughout his career and life. According to Edsel, "When asked his formula for success, he replied, 'A good start, a willingness—even eagerness—to work beyond the call of duty, a sense of fair play, and a recognition of opportunities before and when they arrive. In other words, it is important to find a course and steer it.' He might as well have been describing the MFAA and his role within it."

    Edsel, The Monuments Men, 418.

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