Prologue Magazine

Nazi Looted Art, Part 2

The Holocaust Records Preservation Project

Summer 2002, Vol. 34, No. 2

By Anne Rothfeld


Pfc. Tony Baea looks at Rubens painting

Pfc. Tony Baea, U.S. First Army, looks at a priceless Rubens painting, one of many valuable works found in an underground cave in Siegen, Germany. (111-SC-204155)

Identification and Recovery

The Roberts Commission

In early 1943, the Allies learned of the Nazi art confiscations, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt established the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historical Monuments in War Areas ("The Roberts Commission") to coordinate and promote the protection and recovery of art in war-ravaged Europe, with the understanding that the commission's mission would not interfere with any military operations.30 Named after its chairman, Supreme Court Justice Owen J. Roberts, the commission compiled information on war damage to European and Asian cultural properties and submitted reports to Allied agencies suggesting plans for restituting looted art. The commission was active through June 1946.

Prior to the commission's establishment, beginning in the fall 1942 and as the European war continued, two civilian groups had raised concerns regarding the protection of Europe's cultural treasures. The American Defense Harvard Group, under the direction of Paul Sachs of the Fogg Museum, created and mimeographed lists of European monuments, fine art collections, and archives needing protection. Formed in 1940, this group consisted of fine arts professionals including George Stout of the Fogg Museum and Francis Henry Taylor of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.31 At the same time, the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) created the Committee for the Protection of Cultural Materials in War Areas, under the direction of William B. Dinsmoor, president of the Archaeological Institute of America, and six months later Sumner Crosby became a Roberts Commission representative in London. Dinsmoor and Crosby used the Harvard lists and Baedeker travel guides to prepare maps of European cities and towns that indicated the location of monuments. These maps were later turned over to the Allied air forces to be used in conjunction with Allied strategic bombing over Europe to avoid further damage to European monuments.

In 1942 these two groups approached Harlan F. Stone, Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court and a National Gallery of Art board member, to discuss protecting historical monuments and cultural treasures in Europe. Stone agreed to contact President Franklin D. Roosevelt through Secretary of State Cordell Hull. In a letter dated December 8, 1942, to President Roosevelt, Stone recommended that an American commission be created to coordinate civilian and military efforts to protect historic monuments and cultural treasures in war areas, noting that the Allied nations have a "practical concern in protecting these symbols of civilization from injury and spoiliation."32 Hull agreed with Stone on the importance of the commission. He further explained that the Department of State and the Joint Chiefs of Staff would be notified and have a say as to the function of the commission.

The following April, President Roosevelt responded to Justice Stone, explaining that he felt that any art commission created would need to work closely with the U.S. military branches and he had discussed this matter with the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In Hull's letter to the President dated June 21, 1943, he outlined the commission's functions. It was placed under the War Department so that fine arts professionals could be detailed to military units in order to locate and care for historic monuments in the Allied-occupied territories.33

The next month, July 1943, Justice Stone wrote to David Finley, director of the National Gallery of Art, stating that President Roosevelt approved the founding of the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in Europe. He added that the commission's wartime functions would include providing information to the General Staff of the Army regarding what types of national treasures and monuments to protect.

The letter also proposed that men already enlisted in the armed forces who were "qualified museum officials and art historians . . . could, if desired, be attached to general headquarters of armies on active combat in the European theatre of operation," and these men would "compile, through the assistance of refugee historians of art and librarians, lists of property appropriated by the Axis invading forces." Stone further stated that the American Commission "should urge that the Armistice terms include the restitution of public property appropriated by the Axis Powers [and] where it is not possible to restore such property, . . . restitution in kind should be made by the Axis Powers to the countries from which the property has been taken."34 In August 1943, President Roosevelt established the Roberts Commission under Justice Roberts's chairmanship.

Headquartered at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., the commission was directed by David Finley, director of the National Gallery of Art; Huntington Cairns, the gallery's secretary-treasurer and general counsel, served as vice chairman.35 By locating itself at the National Gallery, the commission was able to facilitate liaisons with both the Departments of War and State.36

The Roberts Commission was instrumental in creating the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFA&A) Section of the U.S. Army. The MFA&A officers, popularly known as the "Monuments Men," were charged with protecting cultural treasures in European war zones.37 Equipped with maps, lists, and handbooks provided by the commission, the Monuments Men documented war damage and prepared lists of sites needing protection. After the war, the Roberts Commission played a major role in the U.S. Military Occupation Government (OMGUS) efforts to recover Nazi-confiscated artworks and restitute the pieces to the rightful owners.

Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFA&A) Section

The Monuments Men began their work in Europe in 1944. In March 1945, a special report from the Roberts Commission to the Monuments Men was issued outlining the primary reasons for the creation of the MFA&A. MFA&A officers were to prevent Allied forces in the field "from damaging national monuments and from damaging or looting public or private collections;" to provide aid "to damaged monuments, fine art and archives collections;" and to "only [be] concerned with measures taken for the immediate protection from further damage of monuments and collections."38 Furthermore, the report stated that the MFA&A officers were not responsible for any type of restoration to the monuments.39

Monuments Men, mainly young art professors and museum curators were recommended and hired by the Roberts Commission for their museum experience and art history education. Capt. Mason Hammond was one of the first officers in Europe. Additional Monuments Men joined Hammond in June 1944 specifically to prevent Allied forces from establishing lodging in historic buildings and to inspect and report on the conditions of monuments listed in the Roberts Commission's "Protected Monuments Lists."40 As the European war was ending and the MFA&A swelled to more than eighty officers and men, the Roberts Commission appointed Lt. Col. Geoffrey Webb as chief of MFA&A operations in Europe and adviser to SHAEF (Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Forces).41

One of the MFA&A's greatest challenges in 1944-1945 was keeping the Allied forces from taking artworks and sending them home to friends and family. When the Monuments Men found that using "off-limits" warning signs were not working, they began using white tape, which Allied troops used to indicate the existence of unexploded mines. The MFA&A covered much territory by the beginning of 1945; after examining more than two hundred monuments, they reported that in Germany alone, over 90 percent of the monuments had been hit by Allied bombings, and 60 percent had been destroyed.42 A secondary challenge the MFA&A met was acting over a sort of "lost and found" department of European art, as civilians began to come to them to search for their stolen personal property.

In spring 1945, the Monuments Men discovered hundreds of caves and mines that stored Nazi caches.43 The first mine they investigated was a copper mine outside of Siegen in Westphalia in April 1945, where they found paintings by Rembrandt, Van Gogh, and Rubens. An original score of Beethoven's Sixth Symphony was also among the items found here.44 On April 6, 1945, came the second find: Merkers.45 The Merkers salt mine housed millions of Reichsmarks in gold bars, non-monetary victims gold, and art from more than a dozen German state museums. In May, Patton's Third Army found the salt mine at Alt Aussee in Austria, which housed more than 6,500 paintings for Hitler's museum in Linz and stolen Italian art for Göring's personal collection.46

Another large find in spring 1945 by the U.S. First Army was the salt mine at Bernterode in Germany's Thuringia Forest.47 During the war, the mine had been used as a storehouse of German munitions and military supplies. In a room behind a brick wall and locked door, however, were huge caskets adorned with Nazi regalia. At first the Americans thought they had found Hitler's tomb, but upon examination, they discovered that the caskets held the bodies of "three of Germany's most revered rulers: Field Marshal von Hindenburg, Frederick the Great, and Frederick William I."48 In addition to the caskets, the American troops found German regimental banners, the Prussian crown regalia with the jewels removed, and paintings, including some by artists such as Watteau and Cranach. And in May 1945, Allied troops found confiscations at Berchtesgaden and Neuschwanstein castle, both of which stored hundreds of ERR loot.49

Art Looting Investigation Unit

In early 1944, Justice Roberts, now the chairman of the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in War Areas, met with Gen. William J. Donovan, director of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), requesting that a special intelligence unit dealing with looted art be formed and administered by the OSS.50 Roberts envisioned that this unit would assist his commission and the U.S. Army's MFA&A Section officers. Donovan agreed, and in 1944 the Art Looting Investigation Unit (ALIU), was placed under the control of OSS's Counterintelligence Branch (X-2) because the OSS believed that certain Nazi agents could be using art looting and collaborative activities to conceal their roles as espionage agents.

Both Roberts and Donovan asked Francis Henry Taylor, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, to select as members of this new unit people from the fine arts community in whom he had personal confidence. For Donovan, Taylor, and Roberts, investigating art looting by the Nazis complemented Allied counterintelligence operations that were already compiling information on Nazis who could be a threat after Germany's defeat. Furthermore, they and their agencies were "interested in tracing and preventing the flow of assets to places of refuge where they might be used to finance the postwar survival of Nazism."51

X-2 gave ALIU the name "Project Orion" because members of the unit considered themselves "hunters" of Nazi art thieves and Nazi art collaborators. An OSS directive declared that the ALIU's primary mission was "to collect and disseminate such information bearing on the looting, confiscation and transfer by the enemy of art properties in Europe, and on the individuals or organizations involved in such operations or transactions, as well as be of direct aid to the United States agencies empowered to effect restitution of such properties and prosecute war criminals" and "to establish the pattern of looting and confiscation in its broader aspects, so as to be guided in the promulgation of plans for ultimate restitution."52 Donovan's directive also outlined ALIU's administration, its personnel, its operational procedures, and funding.

In late November 1944, the ALIU was established and staffed by art historians recommended by Taylor. ALIU members were naval officers with fine arts background and "listed as members of the armed forces, but as members of the OSS, they had more freedom of movement than others in the military."53 On June 10, 1945, the ALIU opened its interrogation center in Bad Aussee, Austria, close to the Alt Aussee salt mine.54 Fully staffed, the ALIU consisted of four commissioned officers, three enlisted men serving as administrative aides, and three civilians. The commissioned officers were responsible for the unit's field operations, reporting to the Roberts Commission, and the investigation and interrogation of Nazis and Germans involved in art confiscations.

Reparations and Restitution

The Central Collecting Points

Upon the end of the European war, in spring 1945, Germany was divided into four zones of occupation. The Office of Military Government, U.S. Zone, OMGUS, was established in October 1945 to administer the U.S. occupation zone. In addition to its other postwar duties, OMGUS took control of all looted art pieces within its German and Berlin zones and returned identifiable objects to the governments of the countries from which they had been stolen.55 There were more than fifteen hundred documented repositories throughout Germany and Austria, all storing Nazi confiscated goods. OMGUS attempted to return those pieces not identifiable to their possible country of origin, and items without any claims were turned over to Jewish successor organizations for restitution. The U.S. Allied Commission for Austria section of OMGUS (USACA) was the U.S. representative in Austria, which also restituted confiscated works.

Soon after the Allied forces discovered the mines and caves in the spring 1945, the Allies began the tedious task of moving the objects into central storage areas in order to return each object to its rightful owner. U.S. Third Army officers and troops found the Alt Aussee mine in May 1945, and it took more than two months to empty the mine and ship the contents to Munich. Having found the stolen art pieces, the Monuments Men, with the aid of Allied troops, faced two huge tasks: first, removing the art from the mines or castles and second, transporting the pieces to safe storage areas within the U.S. occupation zone.56 Due to the large number of salt caves and mines containing treasures, the U.S. Army consolidated the stolen objects into four central collecting points: Munich, Wiesbaden, Marburg, and Offenbach.

At these facilities, confiscated objects were identified, described, and photographed for restitution purposes. Marburg opened first in May 1946, yet it quickly filled up. It was closed in June 1946 once Munich opened, and Marburg's contents were distributed among the other three collecting points. The remaining collecting points were assigned "specialties" in order to expedite restitution efforts: Munich contained materials needing restitution to foreign countries and to the Bavarian State Museums; Wiesbaden held German-owned materials from the former Prussian State Museum and Staedel Institute of Frankfurt; and the Offenbach Archival Depot housed Jewish manuscripts, books, and archives. At their height, Munich held more than one million individual objects; Wiesbaden held more than 700,000.

The Munich Central Collecting Point was set up in the former Nazi administrative building (the Verwaltungsbau) and Hitler's former office (the Fürherbau).57 Offenbach opened in 1945 and restituted books and Judaic objects until 1947, when it was closed and the remaining materials were shipped to Wiesbaden collecting point.58

OMGUS made great efforts to recover and to restitute looted cultural property and created a large volume of records in the process. These records were created for specific purposes: to protect art, whenever possible, from being damaged or stolen by the Allied military forces and to keep art from being used as a financial asset by the Axis. Some of these records consist of property cards, created by the collecting point as the shipments were received. Munich alone received over fifty thousand separate shipments.59 The cards were created to document pertinent information in aiding restitution efforts: classification of the object, artist and title names, dimensions, markings, and photographs of the object. One category on the cards, "presumed owner," may allow art historians to begin their respective research into specific pieces and return them to the claimant.

* * *

Despite the tireless efforts of Allied military and civilian agencies, hundreds of confiscated artworks were never recovered and returned to their rightful owners. The vast volume of documentation left behind by the Nazis and the Allied agencies, however, allows those efforts to continue. Through its microfilming and preservation program, the Holocaust Records Project is providing the historical and art communities with greater access to the records that tell the story of artworks and artifacts damaged and looted during World War II.

Spoils of War Returned, Part 1
Spoils of War Returned, Part 3

Anne Rothfeld was an archivist with the Holocaust Records Project at the National Archives and Records Administration.


Articles published in Prologue do not necessarily represent the views of NARA or of any other agency of the United States Government.

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