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EXPERT AVAILABLE: ‘Monuments Men’ Protected Stolen Artwork That Was Looted by German, Russian and Asian Forces, MU Researcher Says

Allied enemies mirrored the pattern of cultural theft seen throughout history

Jan. 24, 2014

Story Contact(s):
Jeff Sossamon,, 573-882-3346

COLUMBIA, Mo. – The Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFAA) program, established in 1943 under the authority of the Allied armies, is the subject of the upcoming major motion picture, “Monuments Men.” The Monuments Men were a group of Allied art historians and archaeologists who were brought together to protect the cultural property in war areas during and after World War II. A University of Missouri researcher says that the MFAA helped preserve and protect art from destruction in the last stages of World War II and that Germany was mirroring the pattern of cultural theft seen throughout history.

“The Monuments Men program was created in 1943 to protect art in combat zones or after combat had occurred,” said James van Dyke, associate professor of modern European art in the Department of Art History and Archeology at MU. “Everything that was deemed to have cultural significance, including art, architecture and objets d’art were identified, catalogued and protected. The MFAA protected art not only from the Nazi regime as highlighted in the movie, but from other enemies of the Allied Forces. Russian and Asian forces, and in some cases our allies, also were tempted to loot artwork to seek reparation and retribution. Many of the Americans involved in the MFAA remained in Europe until their mission was complete. Later they returned to the states to become arbiters of culture and fine arts.”

Van Dyke, who has conducted extensive research on German art produced in the 1920s and 1930s, also suggests that the acquisition of art and cultural items as the “spoils of victory” during war is recorded throughout human history.

“During WWII, the Germans were following in the footsteps of countless other warring factions who had stolen art from those they conquered,” van Dyke said. “When the Romans overran Jerusalem, they sacked the Synagogue; when the Swedes conquered Germany in the 30 Years War, they took the artwork home; when Napoleon took over Europe, he commandeered the artwork and stored it at the Louvre. Art is a trophy and it signifies the power and glory of your army—the Nazis were not inventing anything new, they were operating under the status quo even if the extent of looting and murderousness were unprecedented.”

Following the war, the MFAA had prominent roles in directing cultural and educational institutions in the United States. Four Monuments Men were Missouri natives, and 10 were later employed in Missouri, including two who became directors of the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City. Recently, U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., introduced a bipartisan bill that would award the Congressional Gold Medal to the “Monuments Men,” which consisted of 345 service members and civilians from 13 nations who had expertise as museum directors, curators, artists, architects and book historians.

Two other Monuments Men accepted jobs at the University of Missouri, including Lewis Williams, a professor of art, and book and manuscript historian Hellmut Lehmann-Haupt, professor emeritus of library science at MU.

“Hellmut Lehmann-Haupt was born in Berlin in 1903 and immigrated to the U.S. in 1929,” van Dyke said. “He accepted a position as curator of rare books at Columbia University, and many of his writings and papers are now housed at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In 1946, Lehmann-Haupt began working with the MFAA in Berlin where he was charged with helping to restore the cultural landscape in Germany following the Allied victory. In 1967, after 14 years as a rare book and manuscript dealer, Lehmann-Haupt came to Mizzou where he finished his career at the MU Libraries.”

Van Dyke suggests that in World War II and afterward, all sides including the Allies took great interest in not only raiding art, but also in preserving it, and the Monuments Men took an important role in the process.

James van Dyke received his doctorate from Northwestern University. He also serves as director of graduate studies in the Department of Art History and Archaeology at MU and is trained in the social history of art, modern European art, twentieth-century art and contemporary art and theory.