How American Museums Protected Their Art From the Nazis

by Rachel Baker on February 13, 2014

Have you ever wondered what Americans were doing to protect their art from the Nazi’s? Well, here’s a good article from that gives you some background.

George Clooney’s newest film, The Monuments Men, arrives in theaters, highlighting a fascinating chapter in World War II. The movie is a fictionalized adaptation of Robert M. Edsel’s authoritative nonfiction book of the same title, which focuses on an international unit of art experts tasked with preserving priceless works throughout the European theatre. Beginning in 1943, the Monuments Men dutifully retrieved canvases and confiscated heirlooms stashed in salt mines and inconspicuous locations across the continent (and later Japan). Given the inconceivable scope of the cultural upheaval, it’s understandable that one element of the story remains largely overlooked: the precautions taken to protect artworks on American soil.

The subject is explored in Edsel’s book (but not on screen), and in even sharper relief in Lynn H. Nicholas’ The Rape of Europa, published in 1994. (The book was followed by a powerful documentary in 2006, which is currently streaming on Netflix, as well as a comprehensive website that dovetails with Edsel’s research.) As Nicholas writes, Americans had every reason to fear an invasion: “If the Japanese had managed to cross thousands of miles of ocean undeterred to turn the huge military complex at Pearl Harbor into a smoking shambles, it seemed quite possible that they could do the same to San Francisco, and the increasing successes of the German U-boat fleet in the Atlantic underlined the vulnerability of the eastern seaboard.” In December 1941, a congressman even proposed painting “gleaming white” monuments in Washington, D.C., gray to make them less obvious targets during potential air raids.

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