Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program

Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program

The Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program under the Civil Affairs and Military Government Sections of the Allied armies was established in 1943 to assist in the protection and restitution of cultural property in war areas during and following World War II. This group of men and women joined military forces to protect historic and cultural monuments from war damage, and as the war came to a close, worked to locate and return works of art and other items of cultural importance which had been stolen by the Nazis or hidden for safekeeping.

Many of the approximately 400 enlisted members and civilians of the MFAA, also known as Monuments Men, went on to have prolific careers. Largely art historians and museum personnel, they had formative roles in the growth of many of the United States’ greatest cultural institutions, including the National Gallery of Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the New York City Ballet, as well as in museums and other institutions in Europe.



Prior to American involvement in World War II, art professionals and organizations such as the American Defense Harvard Group and the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) were working to identify and protect European art and monuments in harm’s way or in danger of Nazi plundering. Together these groups began lobbying for a national organization affiliated with the military which would have the same goal. Francis Henry Taylor, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, took their concerns to Washington, D.C. Their efforts ultimately led to the establishment by U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt of the “American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in War Areas” on June 23, 1943.

Commonly referred to as the Roberts Commission after its chairman, Supreme Court Justice Owen J. Roberts, this commission was charged with promoting the preservation of cultural properties in war areas, including the European, Mediterranean, and Far Eastern Theaters of Operations, providing that this mission did not interfere with military operations. The Roberts Commission provided lists and reports on European cultural treasures to military units on the ground, in hopes that these monuments would be protected whenever possible.

A vital contribution of the Roberts Commission was the establishment of the MFAA branch within the Civil Affairs and Military Government Sections of the Allied armies, whose goal was to protect and salvage cultural property in war areas. After the war, the Roberts Commission assisted the MFAA and Allied Forces in restituting Nazi-confiscated artworks to rightful owners. It also promoted public awareness of looted cultural works. The Roberts Commission was headquartered at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. The group was officially dissolved in June 1946, when the State Department took over their duties and functions.

General Dwight D. Eisenhower did his part to facilitate the work of the MFAA by forbidding looting, destruction, and billeting in structures of cultural significance. He also repeatedly and authoritatively ordered that his forces were to assist the MFAA as much as possible. This was the first time in history an army attempted to fight a war and at the same time mitigate damage to cultural monuments and property.

“Prior to this war, no army had thought of protecting the monuments of the country in which and with which it was at war, and there were no precedents to follow.... All this was changed by a general order issued by Supreme Commander-in-Chief [General Eisenhower] just before he left Algiers, an order accompanied by a personal letter to all Commanders...the good name of the Army depended in great measure on the respect which it showed to the art heritage of the modern world.”[1]

—Lt. Col. Sir Leonard Woolley, Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Officer

War operations

As Allied Forces made their way through Europe, liberating Nazi-occupied territories, Monuments Men were present in very small numbers at the front lines. Without handbooks, resources, or supervision, this initial handful of officers relied on their museum training and overall resourcefulness to perform their tasks. There was no established precedent for what they confronted. They worked in the field under the Operations Branch of SHAEF (Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force, Europe, commanded by Eisenhower), and were actively involved in battle preparations. In preparing to take Florence, which was used by the Nazis as a supply distribution center due to its central location in Italy, Allied troops relied on aerial photographs provided by the MFAA which were marked with monuments of cultural importance so that pilots could avoid damaging such sites during bombings.

When damage to monuments did occur, MFAA personnel worked to assess damage and buy time for the eventual restoration work that would follow. Monuments officer Deane Keller had a prominent role in saving the Campo Santo in Pisa after a mortar round started a fire that melted the lead roof, which then bled down the iconic 14th century fresco-covered walls. Keller led a team of Italian and American troops and restorers in recovering the remaining fragments of the frescoes and in building a temporary roof to protect the structure from further damage. Restoration of the frescoes continues even today.

Countless other monuments, churches, and works of art were saved or protected by the dedicated personnel of the MFAA section. Frequently entering liberated towns and cities ahead of ground troops, Monuments Men worked quickly to assess damage and make temporary repairs before moving on with Allied Armies as they conquered Nazi territory.

Salt mines and castles

American and Allied Forces in Europe discovered hidden caches of priceless treasures, many of which had been looted by Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, while others had been legitimately evacuated from German museums for safekeeping. Monuments Men oversaw the safeguarding, cataloguing, removal and packing of all works from these repositories, regardless of their origin.

In Italy, museum officials had evacuated their holdings to various countryside locations such as the Tuscan villa of Montegufoni, which housed some of the Florentine collections. As Allied Forces advanced through Italy, the German army retreated north, stealing paintings and sculptures from these repositories as they fled. As German forces neared the Austrian border, they were forced to store most of their loot in various hiding places such as a castle at Sand in Taufers and a jail cell in San Leonardo.

Beginning in late March 1945, Allied forces began discovering these hidden repositories in what would become the “greatest treasure hunt in history.” In Germany alone, U.S forces found approximately 1,500 repositories of art and cultural objects. These hiding places contained objects looted from institutions and individuals across Europe, as well as German and Austrian museum collections that had been evacuated for safekeeping. Soviet forces also made significant discoveries, such as treasures from the extraordinary Dresden Transport Museum. The following is a select list of repositories discovered by Monuments Men in Germany, Austria, and Italy:

Berchtesgaden, Germany: The 101st Airborne Division, known as the “Screaming Eagles,” found more than 1,000 paintings and sculptures stolen by German Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring. The cache had been evacuated from his country estate, Carinhall, and moved to Berchtesgaden in April 1945 to protect it from the invading Russians.

Bernterode, Germany: Americans found four coffins containing the remains of Germany’s greatest leaders, including those of Frederick the Great (Frederick II of Prussia) and field marshal Paul Von Hindenburg. Also found in the mine were 271 paintings, including court portraits from the Prussian Sanssouci palace in Potsdam, Germany, which had been hidden behind a locked door and a brick wall nearly five feet thick. The site was originally used as an ammunition and military supply complex manned by hundreds of slave laborers.

Merkers, Germany: The Kaiserode mine at Merkers was discovered by the U.S. 3rd Army under General George S. Patton in April 1945. Reichsbank gold, along with 400 paintings from the Berlin museums and numerous other crates of treasures were also discovered. More dismal discoveries included gold and personal belongings from Nazi concentration camp victims.

Neuschwanstein Castle, Germany: Over 6,000 items including ERR (Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg, Alfred Rosenberg’s task force organized for the “legalized” looting of Jews) documents, furniture, jewelry (see Nazi gold), paintings and other belongings stolen by the ERR from private collectors in France were found here. Monuments Man Capt. James Rorimer oversaw the repository’s evacuation.

Altaussee, Austria: This extensive complex of salt mines served as a huge repository for art stolen by the Nazis, but it also contained holdings from Austrian collections. More than 6,500 paintings alone were discovered at Altaussee. The contents included: Belgian-owned treasures such as Michelangelo’s Madonna of Bruges stolen from the Church of Our Lady in Bruges, and Jan van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece stolen from Saint Bavo Cathedral in Ghent; Vermeer’s The Astronomer and The Art of Painting which were to be focal points of Hitler’s Führermuseum in Linz, Austria; and paintings from the Capodimonte Museum in Naples, Italy that had been stolen by the Hermann Göring Tank Division (Fallschirm-Panzer Division 1 Hermann Göring) at Monte Cassino in Italy.

San Leonardo, Italy: In the jail cell of this very northern town, Allied officials discovered paintings from the Uffizi that had been hurriedly unloaded by retreating German troops. Among the masterpieces were paintings by Sandro Botticelli, Filippo Lippi and Giovanni Bellini.


In early May 1945, Lt. Col. Geoffrey Webb, British MFAA chief at Eisenhower’s headquarters, proposed that U.S forces quickly prepare select buildings in Germany so that they might receive large shipments of artworks and other cultural property found in the numerous repositories. Eisenhower directed his subordinates to immediately begin preparing such buildings, ordering that art objects were to be handled only by MFAA personnel. Suitable locations with little damage and adequate storage space were difficult to find.

By July 1945, U.S. forces had established two central collecting points within the U.S. Zone in Germany: Munich and Wiesbaden. Secondary collecting points were also established in various German towns, including: Bad Wildungen, Heilbronn, Marburg, Nuremberg, and Oberammergau. One of the more critical of these secondary collecting points was at Offenbach, where officials processed millions of Nazi-looted books, archives, manuscripts, Jewish objects such as Torah scrolls, and property seized from Masonic lodges.

In summer 1945, Capt. Walter Farmer became the collecting point's first director. The first shipment of artworks arriving at Wiesbaden. When his superiors ordered that he send back to the U.S. 202 paintings in his custody, Farmer and 35 others who were in charge of the Wiesbaden collection point gathered to draw up what has become known as the Wiesbaden manifesto on 7 November 1945, declaring "We wish to state that, from our own knowledge, no historical grievance will rankle so long or be the cause of so much justified bitterness as the removal for any reason of a part of the heritage of any nation even if that heritage may be interpreted as a prize of war." Among the co-signers was Lt. Charles Percy Parkhurst in the U.S. Navy.[2] Once an object arrived at a collecting point, it was recorded, photographed, studied, and sometimes conserved so that it could be restituted to its country of origin as soon as possible. Some objects were easily identifiable and could be quickly returned, such as the Veit Stoss Altar of Veit Stoss from St. Mary's Basilica in Kraków, which had been discovered in the Nuremberg Castle. Others, such as unmarked paintings or library collections, were much more difficult to process.

Munich Central Collecting Point (MCP): Monuments officer Lt. Craig Hugh Smyth established the MCP in July 1945. He converted the former Führerbau, which housed Hitler’s office, into a functional art depot complete with photography studios and conservation labs. This facility primarily housed art stolen by the ERR from private collections and Hitler’s collection found at Altaussee.

Wiesbaden Collecting Point (WCP): Monuments officer Capt. Walter Farmer helped establish this facility in July 1945. Art from the Berlin museums and other items found in the mines at Merkers were processed here. Museum collections stored at Siegen and Grasleben also were sent to Wiesbaden.

Offenbach Collecting Point (OCP): Established in July 1945 in the I.G. Farben building on the Main River just outside Frankfurt, Offenbach primarily served as an archival depot. Because the OCP housed the largest collection of Jewish cultural property in the world, including the entire holdings of the Rothschild Library in Frankfurt and cultural objects from Masonic lodges, restitutions were complicated. Identification of the millions of books, religious objects and other materials was tedious. Many of the owners had become victims of the Holocaust leaving no one alive to pursue claims. The facility was closed in 1948 and its remaining unclaimed items were transferred to Wiesbaden.

Occupation of Japan

General Douglas MacArthur was Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers in Japan after the war ended. During the occupation of Japan, MacArthur's staff included an MFAA section. Among those serving in Tokyo were Lt. Col. Harold Gould Henderson, Maj. Laurence Sickman and Lt. Sherman Lee[3] and Lt. Patrick Lennox Tierney.

MFAA personnel

The American museum establishment took the lead role in efforts that resulted in creation of the MFAA section. Included in this group were current museum directors, curators and art historians, as well as those who aspired to join their ranks. Upon returning home from service oversees, these remarkable men and women played instrumental leadership roles in building – and in other instances, enhancing – some of the greatest cultural institutions in the United States. Virtually every major museum employed one or more MFAA officers before or after the war. Institutions such as the National Gallery of Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Toledo Museum of Art, and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, among many others, benefited from the leadership of Monuments Men.

Many other Monuments Men were professors at esteemed universities such as Harvard, Yale, Princeton, New York University, Williams College, and Columbia University, among others. Two MFAA men in particular, Paul Sachs and S. Lane Faison, were instrumental in instructing several generations of museum directors and curators. Sachs’ famous “Museum Course” at Harvard educated dozens of future museum personnel in the decades preceding World War II. Faison’s passion for art history was passed on to hundreds of students and future museum leaders at Williams College in the 1960s and 1970s, some of whom are currently directors at major United States museums.

Other MFAA personnel were founders, presidents, and members of cultural institutions such as the New York City Ballet, the American Association of Museums, the American Association of Museum Directors, the Archaeological Institute of America, the Society of Architectural Historians, the American Society of Landscape Architects, and the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts, as well as respected artists, architects, musicians, and archivists.

Two monuments officers were killed while helping to rescue cultural treasures in Europe: Captain Walter Huchthausen, an American scholar and architect attached to the U.S. 9th Army in France and Germany; and Maj. Ronald Edmund Balfour, a British scholar attached to the 2nd Canadian Army in France and Germany.

Select list of MFAA men

Among the thirteen living Monuments men is Lt. Robert A. Koch—Professor of Fine Arts and Archeology Emeritus, Princeton University, now residing in Burnsville, NC.


See also


  1. ^ War damage in Western Europe: the destruction of historic monuments during the Second World War, Nicola Lambourne, Edinburgh University Press, 2001, p. 124, ISBN 9780748612857]
  2. ^ Walter I. Farmer. The Safekeepers: A Memoir of the Arts at the End of World War II. Berlin and New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2000. x + 242 pp., ISBN 978-3-11-016897-6
  3. ^ Weber, Bruce. "Sherman Lee, Who Led Cleveland Museum, Dies at 90," New York Times. July 11, 2008; Kappes, John. "Sherman Lee, who led the Cleveland Museum of Art to global renown, dead at 90," The Plain Dealer (Cleveland). July 9, 2008.
  4. ^


  • Marta M. Boi, Guerra e beni culturali, Giardini editore (Pisa,1986)
  • Carlotta Coccoli, “Repertorio dei fondi dell’Archivio Centrale dello Stato relativi alla tutela dei monumenti italiani dalle offese belliche nella seconda guerra mondiale“ in Gian Paolo Treccani (a cura di), Monumenti alla guerra. Città, danni bellici e ricostruzione nel secondo dopoguerra, Milano, Franco Angeli Storia Urbana, pp. 303–329.
  • Carlotta Coccoli, “«First Aid and Repairs»: il ruolo degli Alleati nella salvaguardia dei monumenti italiani”, in ‘ANATKH n. 62/2011, pp. 13-23.
  • Robert M. Edsel, Rescuing Da Vinci: Hitler and the Nazis Stole Europe’s Great Art, America and her Allies Recovered it (Dallas, 2006)
  • Fifty war-damaged monuments of Italy, Istituto poligrafico dello Stato, (Roma, 1946)
  • Report on the American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in War Areas (Washington, 1946)
  • Elizabeth Simpson, ed., The Spoils of War. World War II and its Aftermath: The Loss, Reappearance, and Recovery of Cultural Property (New York, 1997).
  • Michael J. Kurtz, America and the Return of Nazi Contraband (Cambridge, 2006)

Further reading

External links

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