Ars Longa, Vita Brevis

Notes from the Lampert Library
Patrimony…I see that word a lot when I visit France. The word comes from the Latin “patrimonium” meaning paternal inheritance: property inherited from a father or ancestors. When applied to countries—or fatherlands—the word calls to mind the cultural inheritance of a people: the art, architecture, writings, and music.

During World War II, it was essential to secure land and push the Germans back from the ambitious borders that they sought. Much of the fighting was in areas rich in millennia old art and architecture. Preserving this European patrimony became the task of about 350 men and some women. Many were technically soldiers, but their goal was not to fight and kill but to save from destruction not only works of art but also stained glass, churches, historic buildings and bridges. From 1943 to 1946 the so-called Monuments Men—archivists, art historians, artists, curators, museum directors and professors from thirteen nations—were charged with finding, securing and preserving national treasures that had been confiscated from museums and private collections. What a task for a few hundred people!

It has been argued that saving lives was more important than saving things, even priceless, beautiful things. Millions of Jews, resisters, and political prisoners were under German control. Would it not have been more humane and more important to save them? Decades later, after the fact, one can argue but not change history.

What remains is that the Monuments Men restored to individuals and saved for future generations much of the artistic beauty of Europe: her patrimony. Operating not only in France and Germany, but also in Italy, this group rescued over 100,000 pieces of art and several million books. The Monuments Men were able to return more than 45,000 pieces to their rightful owners. In France over 1/3 of all privately held art-much from the great collections of Jewish citizens- fell into Nazi hands. Many unclaimed pieces reside today in museums. In France rescued art is labeled with the letters MNR and may appeared to be ill-treated. Indeed, they were.

The new movie The Monuments Men popularizes the story. With an irresistible cast including Cate Blanchett, Hugh Bonnevile (Downton Abbey), George Clooney, Matt Damon, Jean Dujardin (The Artist), John Goodman, and Bill Murray the movie tells the story of a disparate group of decidedly non soldier like men who travel France and Germany tracking down caches of paintings stockpiled by the Nazis for later dispersal to The Fuhrermuseum, Hitler’s eponymous museum; the leaders’ own private collections; or other state approved institutions.

But because this is Hollywood, one finds a bit of comic relief, composite and
stock characters, the requisite (thwarted) love affair and rearranging of facts to make a better movie. However, despite its Hollywood veneer, The Monuments Men hits the high points of the real story: how unassuming Rose Valland, the curator of Paris’s Jeu de Palme, kept meticulous records and was able to provide valuable information to the Monuments Men. The movie becomes art history cum art mystery packaged by Hollywood for mass consumption.

If you look beneath the surface, the movie is a celebration of the human spirit, its desire –in the face of evil and greed-to save what is beautiful in the world. One wishes that this same attention had been given to the human victims of Nazi greed and evil.

Even New Jersey is represented in the guise of Sam, a young soldier from Newark via Germany, who acts as translator for the sleuths. Sam is based on the real life Harry Ettinger, one of only a few Monuments Men still living. The poignant story of a painting which he was not allowed to view in a local museum is true.

The search for owners and requests from families is still going on close to seventy years after the war’s end. Hundreds of thousands of pieces may still be secreted in attics, cellars, under ground and in clandestine private collections.

The Lampert Library has several books related to the topic. They make fascinating reading of this important footnote in this global war.

Bonyhady, Tim. Good living Street: portrait of a patron family, Vienna 1900. Not every collection was looted. The Gallia family, émigrés to Vienna from a small town, built a huge collection of modern art. When the family realized that life would change with the Anchluss, they packed up everything, including two pianos, and immigrated to Australia. The book tells the story of their financial rise and acquisition of artistic treasures. Many photos enhance the telling.

De Waal, Edmund de. The Hare with Amber Eyes: a family’s century of art and loss. The De Waals’ had amassed a fabulous collection of art including an exquisite collection of Japanese netsuke. They are all that is left. This adventure like book traces the art collection but focuses on the netsukes.

Edsel, Robert M. The Monuments Men: Allied heroes, Nazi thieves, and the greatest treasure hunt in history. While there are few photos and none in color, this book documents the attempt of the Monuments Men (and some women) to limit the damage and ultimately to locate the great art and artifacts of Northwest Europe. The movie, The Monuments men, is based on Edsel’s book. He has also written about the preservation and location efforts in other parts of Europe.

Houghteling, Sara. Pictures at an Exhibition. Partly based on the accomplishments of Rose Valland, the French double agent responsible for helping the Monuments Men track down caches of stolen art, this novel, tells the story of Max Berenzon’s post war quest to locate his family’s priceless art collection. Almost all the paintings mentioned in the novel are still missing

Muller, Melissa. Lost Lives, Lost Art: Jewish collectors, Nazi art theft, and the quest for justice. Beautifully illustrated with many full color reproductions of artworks-some of which will never again be seen- this book tells the stories of 15 families whose collections were seized by Germany. Some of the owners survived the war; many did not. Well-known names abound.

Nicholas, Lynn. The Rape of Europa: the fate of Europe’s treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War. This is a dense, detailed account of the theft of art and the attempts to find it. The film version is worth watching for its factual take and overall look at the reasons the Monuments Men unit was created.


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