Legacy of the Midwest's Monuments Men

The World War II heroes came home to lead cultural institutions

by Leigh Elmore

American GIs hand-carried paintings down the steps of Neuschwanstein Castle under the supervision of Captain James Rorimer. (Photo credit: NARA / Public Domain)

Even art historians can be war heroes. And civilized society can thank a battalion of cultural scholars in World War II for rescuing some of the world's most treasured art masterpieces.
Known as the "Monuments Men," this group of approximately 345 men and women from 13 nations, most of whom volunteered for service in the newly created Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives (MFAA) section during World War II. Many had expertise as museum directors, curators, art historians, artists, architects, and educators. Their job description was simple: to protect cultural treasures so far as the war allowed.

Together the Monuments Men worked to protect monuments and other cultural treasures from the destruction of World War II. In the last year of the war, they tracked, located, and in the years that followed, returned more than five million artistic and cultural items stolen by Hitler and the Nazis. Their role in preserving cultural treasures was without precedent.
The Monuments Men remained in Europe for up to six years following the conclusion of fighting to oversee the complicated restitution of stolen works of art. During that time they played instrumental roles in rebuilding cultural life in the devastated countries of Europe by organizing temporary art exhibitions and musical concerts.

Upon returning home, many of the Monuments Men and women had extraordinarily prominent roles in building some of the greatest cultural and educational institutions in the United States. They became directors and curators of world-renowned museums such as the Met, the MOMA, the National Gallery of Art, the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Toledo Museum of Art, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and many others. Other revered institutions, such as the New York City Ballet, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the National Endowment for the Arts, were the tangible results of ideas of the Monuments Men.

Bigger than Hollywood

The release of the film The Monuments Men, has sparked renewed interest in this unique cultural aspect of World War II. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, MO has created a special exhibit that applauds six real-life Monuments Men who either worked in or closely with the museum, before and after the war.

"The men and women involved in this selfless effort to keep art objects safe during a dangerous time in history showed immense courage," said Julián Zugazagoitia, CEO and director of the Nelson-Atkins. "We are deeply in their debt for preserving these treasures for humanity." A display of archival materials is currently on view in the Bloch Lobby that includes postcards, manuscripts, newspaper clippings and biographies of the Midwest's Monuments Men. "My research has shown that these six men brought to their military duties the same passion for art and culture that made them so valuable to the Nelson-Atkins," said MacKenzie Mallon, a researcher in the European Painting and Sculpture Department who has been working on this project for many months. "They took their responsibilities as protectors of these monuments very seriously."

Six who served

The museum employed four of the Monuments Men and maintained strong ties with two others.
Paul Gardner, the first director of the Nelson-Atkins, served as director of the Fine Arts Section of the Allied Military Government in Italy.

Another former director, Laurence Sickman, was assigned to General Douglas MacArthur's Tokyo headquarters after the Japanese surrender and served as a technical advisor on collections and monuments, making trips to China and Korea to assess the level of damage to monuments in those countries. He was awarded the Legion of Merit for his war services.

The first curator of European Art at the museum, Patrick J. Kelleher, served as the head of the Greater Hesse Division of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives section.
Otto Wittmann, Jr., the first curator of Prints for the museum, was part of the OSS Art Looting and Investigation Unit (ALIU).

Langdon Warner served as the Asian art advisor to the Trustees of the Nelson-Atkins in 1930, and was a close colleague of Sickman. He helped found the American Defense – Harvard Group, a precursor of the Roberts Commission, Roosevelt's task force.
James A. Reeds served with the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives section in France in 1944. He taught linguistics at University of Missouri at Kansas City and served as a docent for the Nelson-Atkins

American GIs hand-carried paintings down the steps of Neuschwanstein Castle under the supervision of Captain James Rorimer. (Photo credit: NARA / Public Domain)


Found portrait comes to Kansas City

One of the finest examples of 18th century portraiture at the Nelson-Atkins, Nicolas de Largillière's Augustus the Strong, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland, was found by the Monuments Men in a bomb-rigged salt mine in Alt Aussee, Austria, and returned to Clarice de Rothschild, whose family owned the painting. It was purchased by the Nelson-Atkins in 1954 after Rothschild sold it to an art dealer in New York.

During World War II, the Nelson-Atkins also served as a safe house for more than 150 paintings and tapestries from collections on the East and West coasts.
U.S. Senator Roy Blunt from Missouri recently introduced a bipartisan bill that would award Congressional Gold Medals to all 350 of the men and women referred to as Monuments Men.
"The Nelson-Atkins has a rich history which is only enhanced by the individuals who have worked there," said Sen. Blunt. "These Monuments Men protected historical artifacts from destruction and saved these treasures for future generations. I am proud to introduce legislation to award the Congressional Gold Medal to the men and women who fought to preserve this priceless history."

The search continues

The work of the Monuments Men is being carried on today through the auspices of the Monuments Men Foundation (www.monumentsmen.org), which works to uphold the legacy of the World War II cultural veterans and to serve as a clearing house for recovered treasures.
The foundation will use heightened visibility about the Monuments Men to illuminate the path home for the hundreds of thousands of works of art, cultural objects, and documents still missing since World War II. Working with individuals who come forward with leads about missing cultural items - or the actual objects - will enable the Foundation to facilitate their return to the rightful owner.
The foundation has posted on its website images of the 50 "most wanted" artifacts that are still at large. The artists range all over the cultural map from Michelangelo to Matisse.

Two Monuments Men with Nelson ties

Joseph Paul Gardner, a native of Boston, attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where he majored in architecture, but left in 1917 to join the U.S. Army Coast Artillery Corp. He served in France during World War I and attained the rank of Captain. He was awarded the Croix de Guerre with Palm at age 21. At the end of the war he travel Europe studying architecture.

Paul Gardner (photo courtesy of the Nelson-Atkins Archive)

Gardner became the ballet master for the Washington Opera Company and the co-owner of the Tchernikoff Gardnier School of Dancing. He also spent nine years as a dancer with Anna Pavlova's Ballet Company. During this time, he received his Bachelor's of Art in European history from George Washington University, graduating in 1928.

In 1930 he decided to focus on art, and attended doctoral classes at Harvard's Fogg Art Museum in order to prepare himself for museum work, completing his studies in 1932. He became the assistant to the Trustees of the William Rockhill Nelson Trust in March of that year and was appointed as first director of the William Rockhill Nelson Gallery of Art and Mary Atkins Museum of Fine Arts in 1933, now known as the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City.
He served during World War II as a Lieutenant Colonel in command of the MFAA in Italy. From 1942 to 1945 he also served as the Military Governor of Ischia, an Italian island in the Mediterranean Sea. In October 1943, he was the lone MFAA officer to arrive at the ruins of Naples after many delays and difficulties.
After the war he returned to the museum until resigning as director in May 1953. For the last nineteen years of his life he spent his summers on his ranch in New Mexico, and his winters in Italy. Gardner died in New Mexico on Sept. 11, 1972.


A specialist in Asian art, Laurence Sickman served as an army combat officer during World War II, dealing with intelligence in the Pacific theater. In 1945, he advised the MFAA section at Gen. Douglas MacArthur's headquarters in Tokyo.Sickman became interested in Asian art at an early age, and studied Chinese languages and Eastern art while at Harvard. He was graduated in 1930, and received a Harvard-Yenching Fellowship to study and

Laurence Sickman (photo courtesy of the Nelson-Atkins Archive)

travel throughout China. While in China, Sickman was reunited with his former professor, Langdon Warner, who was acquiring art for the Nelson Gallery in Kansas City. Langdon Warner would also go onto to become a Monuments Man in the Pacific. The Nelson Gallery named Gardner as Warner's assistant in 1931: he remained in China to purchase art. The two often disagreed, nevertheless Sickman managed to make some outstanding acquisitions.

Many were from the collection of Chinese emperor Pu Yi, the last monarch of the Qing Dynasty. When he fled Peking in 1924, the emperor took much of his personal collection with him, which he readily sold because he was "much more interested in his new Japanese motorcycle."
Sickman also acquired the ceiling from the Ch'ih'hua Temple in Peking, dating from 1444. He was named curator of Oriental art in 1935, and was credited with amassing one of the greatest Asian art collections in the United States. As a curator, Sickman was a proponent of exhibiting art in its true context, so he displayed works of art along with furniture and decorative pieces.

He returned to the museum after his MFAA service, and was subsequently named director in 1953. As director, Sickman also expanded other areas of the museum, hiring scholars of American and European art, as well as Ancient art and European decorative arts.



Leigh Elmore can be contacted at editor@discoverypub.com


 

Feature Stories Archive — past articles