George Clooney’s film “The Monuments Men” tells the story of an unlikely “Band of Brothers”– art historians, artists, architects–who raced against time to save Europe’s art from destruction during World War II. But when peace was declared, the Monuments Men’s work had just begun.
On August 20 1945, a shipment arrived at the Monuments Men Wiesbaden Collecting Point that was possibly the most valuable single shipment of art in history. Fifty-seven fully loaded trucks, accompanied by tanks, arrived one-by-one on the bumpy road from Frankfurt. Hundreds of pieces of priceless art and cultural objects were unloaded, catalogued, and stored. A browse through the Monuments Men property cards blandly identifies this amazing shipment as Inshipment One. It included paintings by old masters, sculptures, tapestries, and most famously, the centuries-old bust of Egyptian Queen Nefertiti.
Now that the war was at an end, the Monuments Men were faced with the enormous task of not only safeguarding, but also restituting, the art that was now under their control. The contrast between the war-ravaged landscape outside the walls of the Collecting Point and the treasures stacked floor-to-ceiling inside, was striking. Outside, there was very little food, shelter or security. Inside were many of the greatest cultural treasures of western civilization.
One of the things that most interested me about this duality was what it looked like from the perspective of the average German civilian. In 1945, millions of ordinary German people–women, children, old, young, men and women–were faced with the horrifying truth of the evil the Nazis had wrought. In light of that reality, saving a bunch of art could easily have been declared irrelevant. But it wasn’t.
To the average German, the work of the Monuments Men must have seemed either unfathomably noble or unnecessarily frivolous. In fact, many Germans believed the Monuments Men were in actuality hoarding the art in preparation for shipment back to America. Eventually just such pressure did come from political leaders stateside, who saw a huge opportunity to enrich America’s art museums. It was the Monuments Men who stood firm against this tide and pledged to return these “spoils of war” to their pre-war owners. It was an unprecedented stand in the history of warfare.
Today the bust of Nefertiti is back in Berlin’s rebuilt Neues Museum, exactly where she was in 1939, before the Nazis packed her up and sent her underground for safekeeping. Thousands of other pieces of art have been returned to their pre-war homes. Many others are still floating around, either lost or hidden, or the victims of greedy and opportunistic collectors and governments, who took advantage of the post-war confusion to stake dubious claims on priceless works. But thanks to the Monuments Men, the vast majority of Europe’s cultural patrimony was saved and returned, even against the backdrop of the most horrible human suffering imaginable. To me, this is a profoundly humane and compassionate act of preservation and recognition of the human spirit. Art outlives us all, no matter who we are. To paraphrase a character in George Clooney’s Monuments Men movie, if you destroy our art, it’s as if we never existed.
What is the true value of art to you?
Do you think it is worth saving, even against all odds?
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C.F. Yetmen is a writer and consultant specializing in architecture and design. She is co-author of The Owner’s Dilemma: Driving Success and Innovation in the Design and Construction Industry and a former publisher of Texas Architect magazine. THE ROSES UNDERNEATH is her first novel. Visit www.cfyetmen.com.
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