The True Story (Monuments Men)
Captain Robert Posey and Pfc. Lincoln Kirstein were the first through the small gap in the rubble blocking the ancient salt mine at Altausee, high in the Austrian Alps in 1945 as World War II drew to a close in May 1945. They walked past one sidechamber in the cool damp air and entered a second one, the flames of their lamps guiding the way.
There, resting on empty cardboard boxes a foot off the ground, were eight panels of The Adoration of the Lamb by Jan van Eyck, considered one of the masterpieces of 15th-century European art. In one panel of the altarpiece, the Virgin Mary, wearing a crown of flowers, sits reading a book.
“The miraculous jewels of the Crowned Virgin seemed to attract the light from our flickering acetylene lamps,” Kirstein wrote later. “Calm and beautiful, the altarpiece was, quite simply, there.
Kirstein and Posey were two members of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives section of the Allies, a small corps of mostly middle-aged men and a few women who interrupted careers as historians, architects, museum curators and professors to mitigate combat damage. They found and recovered countless artworks stolen by the Nazis.
Their work was largely forgotten to the general public until an art scholar, Lynn H. Nicholas, working in Brussels, read an obituary about a French woman who spied on the Nazis’ looting operation for years and singlehandedly saved 60,000 works of art. That spurred Nicholas to spend a decade researching her 1995 book, The Rape of Europa, which began the resurrection of their story culminating with the movie, The Monuments Men, based upon Robert Edsel’s 2009 book of the same name. The Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art holds the personal papers and oral history interviews of a number of the Monuments Men as well as photographs and manuscripts from their time in Europe.
“Without the [Monuments Men], a lot of the most important treasures of European culture would be lost,” Nicholas says. “They did an extraordinary amount of work protecting and securing these things.”
Nowhere, notes Nicholas, were more of those treasures collected than at Altaussee, where Hitler stored the treasures intended for his Fuhrermuseum in Linz, Austria, a sprawling museum complex that Hitler planned as a showcase for his plunder. On that first foray, Kirstein and Posey (portrayed in pseuodyminity by actors Bob Balaban and Bill Murray, respectively) had also discovered Michelangelo’s Madonna, which was spirited out of Bruges, Belgium, by the Nazis in September 1944 as the Allies advanced on the city. Within days, they’d also found priceless works by Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer.
They summoned the only Monuments Man for the job, George Stout, who had pioneered new techniques of art conservation before the war working at Harvard’s Fogg Museum. Early in the war, Stout (given the name Frank Stokes as played by George Clooney in the film) unsuccessfully campaigned for the creation of a group like the Monuments Men with both American and British authorities. Frustrated, the World War I veteran enlisted in the Navy and developed aircraft camouflage techniques until transferred to a small corps of 17 Monuments Men in December 1944.
Stout had been crossing France, Germany and Belgium recovering works, often traveling in a Volkswagen captured from the Germans. He was one of a handful of Monuments Men regularly in forward areas, though his letters home to his wife, Margie, mentioned only “field trips.”
Monuments Men like Stout often operated alone with limited resources. In one journal entry, Stout said he calculated the boxes, crates, and packing materials needed for a shipment. “No chance of getting them,” he wrote in April 1945.
So they made do. Stout transformed German sheepskin coats and gas masks into packing materials. He and his small band of colleagues rounded up guards and prisoners to pack and load. “Never anywhere in peace or war could you expect to see more selfless devotion, more dogged persistence in going on, much of the time alone and empty-handed, to get it done,” Stout wrote to a stateside friend in March 1945.
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