COLUMBIA — During the final years of World War II, 262 Americans joined a group from 13 Allied nations to safeguard millions of the world's art treasures from destruction.
Altogether, a team of 350 tracked and saved more than 5 million paintings, books, manuscripts and other museum-quality items looted by the Nazis — masterpieces by Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and Vermeer, as well as contemporary works by Salvador Dali, Paul Klee, Pablo Picasso and many more.
Known as the "Monuments Men," the rescuers were an assemblage of art historians, architects, artists, curators and educators summoned for duty after 1943.
Two of them would eventually become members of the faculty at MU: Lewis Williams, a professor of art, and Hellmut Lehmann-Haupt, a bibliographer and rare book expert who began teaching on campus in 1969.
The men and women who served in the war's Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program are the subjects of a highly publicized movie, “The Monuments Men,” directed by and starring George Clooney, and set for release on Friday.
The film also stars Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman and Cate Blanchett as characters who risked their lives in many instances to rescue irreplaceable works of art, although those portrayed in the film are fictional.
Some of the actual "Monuments Men" developed strong ties to Missouri. All told, 10 settled in the state after the war; four were natives.
In addition to the two who came to MU, six became affiliated with The Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City. One of them, Paul Gardner, became the museum's first director, and Laurence Sickman was its first curator of Oriental art and ultimately the museum director for almost 25 years.
An exhibit running until March 7 at the Nelson-Atkins takes note of their contributions through relevant newspaper clippings and personal letters. The effort to save European art during the war is also the subject of a documentary, “Hunting Hitler’s Stolen Treasures: The Monuments Men,” that premiered Wednesday on the National Geographic Channel and airs again at 3 p.m. Feb. 12.
Many of the American "Monuments Men" remained in Europe until their mission was complete, then returned to the states to resume their lives as arbiters of culture and fine arts, said James van Dyke, associate professor of modern European art in the Department of Art History and Archeology at MU.
Van Dyke has conducted extensive research on German art produced in the 1920s and 1930s, as well as the history of art as "spoils of victory" during wartime.
He said the mission of Lehmann-Haupt, who lived in Columbia from his appointment in 1969 until his death in 1992, was to rejuvenate the ravaged cultural landscape of post-war Germany.
“After the Nazis had kind of suppressed a lot of modern artistic institutions – and a lot of artists – his job was to say, ‘Let's get that going again,’ ” Van Dyke said.
According to The Monuments Men Foundation, which supports art recovery and preservation, Lehmann-Haupt was born in Berlin, attended universities in Berlin, Vienna and Frankfurt and worked in Europe before coming to Columbia University in 1929.
He worked in library science and rare books curation until joining the "Monuments Men" in 1946. With the task of reviving post-war culture in Germany, he helped a number of artists re-establish themselves and studied the effects of Hitler's attempt to control the arts.
Van Dyke said contributions to the Monuments Men’s cause were various among its members. Unlike Lehmann-Haupt, however, Lewis Williams' war efforts are not well-documented.
One group of "Monuments Men," however, was responsible for saving "Augustus the Strong, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland," a prized 18th-century portrait in the Nelson-Atkins Museum. Sixty years ago, the Nicholas de Largilliere piece was sitting in a bomb-rigged salt mine, stolen and stashed away by Nazi forces.
MacKenzie Mallon, a researcher in the European Painting and Sculpture Department at the Nelson-Atkins Museum, has been working on the "Monuments Men" exhibit. It includes memorabilia about Gardner, who helped command the "Monuments Men" in Italy during the war.
Mallon said the people of Kansas City were eager to hear news about the museum director's wartime experiences.
“His activities over there were widely publicized in the press; he was very well-known,” she said. “When he would write a letter to his friends, often they would hand it over to The Kansas City Star, and they would often publish it.”
At one point, he scouted a castle near Naples to see if an art collection belonging to the Guinness family in Ireland was safe.
“He literally crawled on his hands and knees during a battle, with shells falling all around him,” Mallon said. “He knew a collection was in the castle, and he needed to save it.”
Sickman, who followed Gardner as museum director, dedicated much of his life to the preservation of cultural sites throughout Asia. He hunted down stolen art years before his time as a "Monuments Men," Mallon said.
According to "The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art: Culture Comes to Kansas City" an art history book by Kristie Wolferman, Sickman helped recover an important limestone relief stolen from a cave in China.
Looters had haphazardly chipped out pieces of the relief and sold them in places such as Shanghai and Germany. With the help of Langdon Warner, a museum colleague and future "Monuments Men," Sickman was able to reunite the fragments.
“At the time it seemed impossible that the relief could ever be reconstructed. Yet, because Sickman had the rubbing and the patience to seek out the pieces over a number of years, he was able to reassemble the limestone relief for the Nelson collection in 1941,” Wolferman wrote.
Mallon calls the people dedicated to cultural preservation inspirational: “The bravery of these men who came from many very modest backgrounds, to go over there, and their enthusiasm and dedication to the preservation of these cultural objects – it was unbelievable.”
Van Dyke described the efforts of the "Monuments Men" as a unequaled effort to prevent history from repeating itself.
“This episode is a part of that large history of art’s involvement in conquest and war, and the 'Monuments Men' played a role in one episode of this large history,” Van Dyke said.
U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., recently sponsored a bill to award Congressional Gold Medals to all members of the "Monuments Men."
Contemporary military conflicts continue to provide an existential threat to art surrounded by the violence, Blunt said in a conference call last week.
“It’s too bad that in our recent conflicts, particularly in Iraq, where so much was lost of the cultural heritage of Iraq — both buildings and looted artwork — that the work of the 'Monuments Men' hasn't continued as we would hope it would in the modern day” he said.
As war persists to endanger works of art, Van Dyke said, the Monuments Men’s legacy should extend beyond their saved works.
“More important to me than the individual works is the effort to intervene or recuperate millions of objects,” he said.
“Whether they’re well-known or not, that’s what’s really important.”
Supervising editor is Jeanne Abbott.