Robert Edsel's Blog

Blog entries for the ‘Travel and Museum Hints’ Category

67th Anniversary of an Amazing Day in History: April 12,1945

April 12th, 2012 | 3:27 pm

Left to Right: Generals Bradley, Patton, and Eisenhower (Photo Courtesy of National Archives)

Having heard about the extraordinary discovery of most all of Nazi Germany’s gold reserves and paper currency, along with its vast cultural wealth from Berlin’s greatest museums and libraries, in a salt mine in Merkers, Germany, Generals Eisenhower, Patton and Bradley left SHAEF headquarters in Rheims, France and made a several day visit to see it firsthand. As the Monuments Men, led by George Stout, were urgently crating the works of art for removal from the mine, the generals descended in a rickety elevator manned by a lone German operator.

Their sense of disconnection was palpable: billions of dollars (in today’s currency) of gold bars and bagged coins sat stacked in one chamber adjacent to some of the world’s greatest works of art. Chests filled with gold fillings pulled from the mouths of murdered victims of the Nazi genocide sat idle, not yet smelted into bars to sit atop the Reichsbank horde. Suitcases of silverware, another reminder of property stolen along with the lives of the owners, lined several walls.

General Eisenhower at Ohrdruf Concentration Camp (Photo Courtesy of National Archives)

Later that afternoon, the generals visited Ohrdruf, the first Nazi work camp liberated by American forces. Strewn before them were the corpses of the dead and emancipated figures of those near death. General Patton, old “Blood and Guts”, had to lean against the side of one of the bunkhouse sheds as he was sick to his stomach from the horrors and stench of what he was witnessing.

President Franklin Roosevelt attending Yalta Conference in February 1945, less than 2 months before he died. (Photo Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons)

After dinner, as the generals returned to their respective tents, General Patton overheard on the BBC the announcement of President Roosevelt’s death earlier that day. At age 63, 12 years into his presidency, having led the nation through its most perilous fiscal crisis and a world war, Roosevelt was gone. He did not live to see the fruits of his leadership – victory – which would follow 26 days later in Europe, and 125 days later in Japan.

April 12: a day that had momentous implications for our nation, the world, and the Monuments Men.


(For a more detailed account of this story, please read The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History).



February 7th, 2012 | 11:27 am

I am pleased to announce dates for a one-of-a kind trip we have designed in conjunction with The National World War II Museum. This September 14-23, we will be taking a small group on a unique experience: In the Footsteps of the Monuments Men.

(Monuments Men Harry Ettlinger and Monuments Men Foundation Founder and President Robert Edsel at National World War II Museum)

Monuments Man Harry Ettlinger will join me to help lead this 10 day trip during which we will visit the key locations in which the Monuments Men worked including some of the most dramatic moments of their wartime duty: discovery of Nazi treasure troves at the Castle of Neucshwanstein, and in the Alt Aussee salt mine, a repository uncovered by the Monuments Men that contained thousands of works of art destined for Hitler’s Führermuseum.

We will also visit the site of Hitler’s home in Berchtesgaden and the Eagle’s Nest where many of the albums of photographs of works of art stolen by the Nazis were located. The tour includes travel from Paris to the final destination in Munich, luxury accommodations and meals.

The National World War II Museum is committed to bringing the history of World War II to life, and has years of experience organizing such trips. We are very excited to be working with their team of experts and historians in making this the experience of a lifetime.

For more details about this tour, please visit:


Was Kimbell Statue Hiding a Sordid History?

July 7th, 2011 | 11:22 am

Museum historian Nancy Edwards, left, and author Robert Edsel were both instrumental in determining the history of a bust of Isabella d’Este at the Kimbell Art Museum. The bust was found among articles collected by Adolf Hitler.  Star-Telegram / Ron T. Ennis

Robert Edsel, Nancy Edwards and the Kimbell Museum were instrumental in determining the provenance history behind a bust that is on display at the Kimbell Museum in Fort Worth, Texas.  The article that appeared in the Fort Worth Star Telegram explains how Robert became aware that this bust was in a salt mine at Alt Aussee during and after World War II due to Adolf Hitler’s desire to own it and its incredible travels from auction houses in Europe and America and eventually settle in Fort Worth.

To read the full article as it appeared in the newspaper, click here: Fort Worth Star Telegram – Mystery Woman

To read the full article as it appears on their website, click here: – Was Kimbell Statue Hiding a Sordid Sales History?

Please forward this article to all your family and friends.



February 18th, 2011 | 2:42 pm

Please listen in tomorrow to Travel with Rick Steves for a revealing interview with Monuments Man Harry Ettlinger and me about a unique, one of a kind trip we have designed in conjunction with The National World War II Museum.  This September we will be taking a small group, limited to just 35 people, on a unique experience: In The Footsteps of the Monuments Men.

I will be leading this 10 day trip during which we will visit the key locations in which the Monuments Men worked including some of the most dramatic moments of their wartime duty:  discovery of Nazi treasure troves at the Castle of Neuschwanstein and in the Alt Aussee salt mine. We will also visit the site of Hitler’s home in Berchtesgaden and the Eagle’s Nest where many of the albums of photographs of works of art stolen by the Nazis were located.

Founder and President of the Monuments Men Foundation Robert M. Edsel and Monuments Man Harry Ettlinger

This is our third appearance on Travel with Rick Steves, Rick and his outstanding producer, Tim Tattan do a great job with these programs. They were very excited about this show in particular because of the news of our trip and Harry’s participation.  For more details on the trip please click on this link:

The National World War II Museum is the leading tour provider of trips to key World War II sites and has years of experience organizing such trips all the result of its co-founder and leading World War II historian, Stephen Ambrose.  We are so very excited to be working with their team of experts and historians in making this an experience everyone will forever cherish.



July 12th, 2010 | 1:31 pm

Monuments Man Sherman Lee: 1918-2010. Photo Courtesy of NARA.

On July 11, 2008 we lost a great hero, Monuments Man Sherman Lee. Today I would like to share his story with you – we honor him by remembering.

A renowned expert on Asian art, Sherman Lee served as a Lieutenant in the Naval reserve from 1944 until 1946, when he began working as an advisor to the MFAA in Tokyo. Unlike in Europe, the Monuments Men were not sent to Japan until after hostilities ended in 1945, and even then there were only a handful of Monuments Men and several Japanese assistants and colleagues charged with inspecting cultural property across Japan. Their mission was to inventory all Japanese art and monuments, including buildings, gardens, and national parks, to evaluate war damage, and also to promote exhibitions of Japanese art and living artists. Through Lee’s negotiations with the Japanese government, the collection of the Shosoin Imperial Repository in Nara was exhibited publicly in 1947 for the first time in history.

Sherman Lee, photograph by Yousaf Karsh.

Lee used the experience of working as a Monuments Man in Japan to further his career as well, “I took every opportunity to avail myself of the chance, and such knowledge as I now possess I owe to our Japanese representatives in the field.” In recognition of his service, the Japanese Government awarded Lee the Order of the North Star and the Order of the Sacred Treasure. He also received the Legion of Honor.

Visiting with Sherman Lee in 2006. Photo Courtesy of Robert M. Edsel Collection.

Prior to his military service, Sherman received both his Bachelors and Masters of Arts from American University, and his Doctorate degree from Case Western University in 1941. He became Curator of Far Eastern Art at the Detroit Institute of Arts in 1941. From 1948 until 1952 he taught at the University of Washington and also was Associate Director at the Seattle Art Museum. In 1952, Lee began his long career as Chief Curator of Oriental Art, Assistant Director, and Associate Director, becoming Director in 1958. As director, he greatly expanded all areas of the museum’s collection, and highlighted the role of educational programs, adding an education wing in 1971. Lee retired from the Cleveland Museum in 1983 and began teaching as an adjunct professor of art history at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. The Ruth and Sherman Lee Institute for Japanese Art was founded in his honor at the Clark Center near Fresno, California.

Click here to read his and other Monuments Men biographies on the Monuments Men Foundation website:

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June 30th, 2010 | 2:31 pm

Rembrandt van Rijn, Nightwatch (Militia Company of Captain Frans Banning Cocq), 1642. Oil on canvas, 3.6 x 4.4m (10 ft 10 in x 14ft 4 in).

On June 30, 1945, Rembrandt van Rijn’s masterpiece, Nightwatch (Militia Company of Captain Frans Banning Cocq), was formally unrolled at the Rijksmuseum after having been returned to Amsterdam by the Dutch canal system on a special boat.

Photo Courtesy of NARA.

The painting had spent the last six years in hiding, in no fewer than four different repositories. It traveled from Castricum, to Heemskerk, to St. Pietersberg, and finally to a specially constructed bombproof shelter at Paaslo.

Photo Courtesy of NARA.

After the painting was unrolled, it was reattached to its stretcher and carefully examined by Rijksmuseum officials, as seen in the photo above. From left to right: Professors Reuling and Wolter of the Committee of Amsterdam; Dr. C. Lindeman, a director of the Rijksmuseum; D.C. Roell, general director of the Rijksmuseum; and (second from right) the Dutch painter Ruter, also a member of the Committee of Amsterdam.

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June 7th, 2010 | 5:29 pm

Lt. James Rorimer (kneeling, at left) and Louvre curator Germain Bazin pose in front of Goya’s painting Time, which had been successfully protected during the war at the Château de Sourches in France. Photo Courtesy of NARA.

While tens of thousands of Allied troops were flooding the beaches of Normandy on D-Day (June 6, 1944), the Monuments Men were impatiently waiting to cross the English Channel for their chance to contribute. For Monuments Man James Rorimer, and future director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the gravity of the situation gripped him that day:

“We are told that the invasion of Western Europe by overwhelming forces is underway…Now I am thinking of the combat troops and the task which is theirs. We older men are anxious on the one hand to help deal the death blow to tyranny, and on the other we think of our families at home and the obligations which we have as husbands, fathers, sons, and members of the peace-time community.”
-James Rorimer Letter to his Family, June 6, 1944

While conducting research for my books (The Monuments Men and Rescuing Da Vinci) and reading the hundreds of letters the Monuments Men wrote to their families, one of the first things that struck me was the extent to which the thoughts and feelings conveyed in these letters reflected their age and maturity. The Monuments Men had an average age of 40; a few had even fought in World War I. For the most part, these heroes were not the fearless young men who went to war before their adult lives had really begun. In contrast, these men had accomplished careers, they had wives and children, they had learned lessons from life’s experiences, and they had everything to lose. Rereading their letters always reminds me about their commitment to saving the cultural world and its great artistic treasures we all cherish, and the courage of their convictions in volunteering to serve.

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Princeton Alumni Weekly – When Art Historians Went to War

June 3rd, 2010 | 2:41 pm


When art historians went to war

Alumni were key in efforts to save Europe’s art treasures

By W. Barksdale Maynard ’88
Published in the June 2, 2010, issue

"Monuments Men” examine relics of the Holy Roman regalia upon their return to Vienna in 1946. Lt. Ernest DeWald *14 *16 is at far right, and Lt. Perry Cott ’29 *37 is third from left. Photo courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, MD.

Late in World War II, the Allies prepared for their bloody ­invasion of Fortress Europe. Many observers expected to see heartrending destruction of art and architectural treasures as bombs rained from the sky and soldiers ransacked and looted. Culture had suffered grievously in countless wars of the past; why should this, the most horrific conflict in all human history, be any different?  

But it was different: The Allies took remarkable measures to protect threatened art. “Shortly we will be fighting our way across the continent of Europe in battles designed to preserve our civilization,” Gen. Dwight Eisenhower told his commanders just before D-Day in a historic message signaling an enlightened new attitude. “Inevitably, in the path of our advance will be found historical monuments and cultural centers which symbolize to the world all that we are fighting to preserve” — and so he ordered his commanders to safeguard those treasures as their armies swept violently forward. It was a first in military history.  

Key to this noble effort were art historians serving in the ranks of the American, British, and Canadian forces, including more than a dozen young Princetonians. As described in a new book by Robert Edsel, a former Texas oilman who recently set up the Monuments Men Foundation to honor their memory, and co-author Bret Witter, these soldiers volunteered for the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Service (MFAA). They tagged along with the advancing troops, warning them of art landmarks to avoid and performing emergency restorations as needed to paintings, sculpture, and architecture. After the Third Reich collapsed, MFAA officers undertook the daunting task of finding lost art, which the enemy had scattered for safekeeping across more than a thousand secret locations in Germany alone — including deep underground in salt mines. Assembling this jumbled material at “collecting points,” they began the tedious process of repatriating 5 million objects, a herculean task that took until 1951 to complete.  

Monuments Man Sgt. Kenneth C. Lindsay and the bust of Queen Nefertiti, now housed at the Neues Museum in Berlin. Photo courtesy of the Kenneth C. Lindsay Collection.

Edsel calls their efforts “a completely overlooked part of history,” so little public attention have they received. But 60 years later, the records MFAA kept are still used regularly by museum professionals like Nancy Yeide of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., who researches the ownership history of paintings — their “provenance.” The contribution of MFAA was, she says, “absolutely inestimable. It should be a source of pride to Americans. Especially when you consider there were a lot of things the U.S. military had on its plate, like feeding and clothing Europe.”  

It seems especially admirable when compared to the actions of the Soviet Union, which dispatched a Trophy Commission in 1945 to steal 2.5 million art objects in reparation against Germany, including the famous gold artifacts excavated by Schliemann at Troy (which didn’t surface again until the 1990s). Berlin’s Museum Island was systematically ransacked. Russia still refuses to return many of these looted items. By contrast, the 350 or so members of MFAA were selfless and disinterested in their efforts to return art to its proper owners, including those in the former Reich — even though the U.S. government didn’t always follow MFAA’s lead.

Princetonians figured prominently in MFAA. The Univer­sity’s Department of Art and Archaeology was nearly 60 years old when the war began and was rivaled only by Harvard’s as the finest in the nation. Many professionals had trained in McCormick Hall and the Art Museum, including the innovative director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Alfred Barr ’22. He became the first American to warn of the threat to art by Nazi “sons-of-bitches,” as he called them after witnessing a Stuttgart rally in 1933 — the Nazis routinely burned paintings they considered “degenerate” and looted Europe’s treasures for their personal aggrandizement. Hitler, a frustrated artist himself, planned a megalomaniacal museum for Linz, Austria. In assembling his trove, the Führer competed against Washington’s National Gallery of Art (opened in 1941) and other world museums — but he had persuasive powers of acquisition they lacked. At his death he owned an astonishing 8,000 paintings, double the number the National Gallery has been able to amass over the past 70 years.  

When the war ended, MFAA established a collecting point in bomb-cratered Wiesbaden, Germany, in a building that had served as a state museum before the war and later housed Luftwaffe headquarters. Conditions were grim in the building, where every window was shattered and doors had been blown off their hinges. A ring of U.S. Army tanks kept looters away. As crates arrived daily in trucks, Capt. Patrick “Joe” Kelleher *47 and fellow officers were staggered to find that they contained some of the greatest masterpieces in art history, including Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. For Kelleher, it was like returning to the McCormick Hall classroom where he had studied these very works as a master’s-degree student just before enlisting.

Nestled in one box was a glittering treasure: St. Stephen’s Crown, a talisman held sacred by the Hungarian people for 700 years. Kelleher seized the opportunity to study the seldom-seen crown up close, and later he wrote his Princeton dissertation on it. The U.S. government refused to send the crown back to Communist Hungary, so it languished at Fort Knox until being repatriated in 1978 — after Kelleher, by then retired as director of the Princeton University Art Museum, had been invited to examine it one more time.  

Boyish and high-spirited, Kelleher liked to needle Capt. Walter Farmer, the brusque and jumpy director of the Wiesbaden collecting point. At Christmas 1945, Farmer went out of town, leaving strict orders that no more crates should be opened — the German museum curators had packed the artworks carefully before hiding them in the salt mines, and Farmer wanted them to remain undamaged. But Kelleher invited fellow art lovers for a bibulous dinner party and, with great fanfare, pried open a lid to extract the most famous of all Egyptian sculptures, the bust of Nefertiti. Delighted to find her unbroken, they raised their glasses to a woman whose beauty was undimmed after 3,300 years.  

When Farmer found out, he fulminated about this “outrageous act of disobedience by a fellow officer.” He knew that the ravishing Nefertiti was dogged by controversy already: She had been whisked to Berlin within months of her discovery by archaeologists in 1912, and now the Egyptian government was clamoring for her return. Nefertiti remains a sore point even today: Over strident objections from Cairo, the bust has just become the centerpiece of Berlin’s Neues Museum, gutted by bombs during World War II and not reopened until last year.  

Given MFAA’s mission to return all artwork to its rightful owners, Farmer was incensed when top generals ordered him to pack up 202 of the very best paintings for shipment to the National Gallery of Art for safekeeping, including 15 Rembrandts. Would they ever be returned to the German museums that formerly housed them? he wondered. Kelleher and other MFAA officers grimly assembled “The 202” for shipment, but not before 32 of them signed the “Wiesbaden Manifesto” on Farmer’s desk Nov. 7, 1945. This letter of complaint to the military higher-ups warned that the German people would see this as “a prize of war” confiscation: No other act “will rankle so long, or be the cause of so much justified bitterness.”  

Author of the Wiesbaden Manifesto was feisty Capt. Everett “Bill” Lesley *37, later an art history professor at Old Dominion University. A seasoned MFAA veteran, he had followed the advancing armies after the Normandy invasion and reported on the condition of art-rich places along the way: Chartres was mercifully intact, he found, but La Gleize Cathedral in Belgium had been pulverized. Other Princeton signers of the manifesto included Kelleher, Lt. Charles Parkhurst *41, and 1st Lt. Robert Koch *54, the last familiar to many alumni from his long career teaching art history at Princeton. “We believed first of all that the language was the same the Nazis had used when they looted, which was ‘protective custody,’” Parkhurst later said in explaining why he signed the manifesto. “We thought that was a bad omen.”

Art historians in the United States were unhappy about “The 202” confiscation as well. Truman’s secretary of state received a stern letter from Rensselaer Lee ’20 *26 on behalf of the College Art Association, a professional organization representing artists and academics. Lee had advised President Franklin Roosevelt on cultural treasures in the theater of war and later became an esteemed professor at Princeton. But despite all objections, “The 202” were delivered to America as ordered, where nearly a million visitors saw them on display at the National Gallery in the first “blockbuster” show in history, military police sternly standing guard. Lee and others were gratified when all the paintings finally were returned to Germany in 1948, a positive outcome that the Wiesbaden Manifesto perhaps helped ensure.

MFAA officers at the Munich collecting point, including Lt. Craig Hugh Smyth ’38 *56, second from left, and Lt. Charles Parkhurst *41, second from right. Photo courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., Gallery Archives.

Among the young curators at the National Gallery of Art was serious-minded Craig Hugh Smyth ’38 *56, who supervised the wartime removal of that museum’s contents to Biltmore Estate in Asheville, N.C. As a naval lieutenant, he went on to establish an MFAA collecting point in Munich just a month after the city fell to the Allies, housing it in former Nazi administration buildings still draped in green fishnet camouflage. (Nearby museums had been destroyed by bombing.) Smyth held conferences in the room where hapless Neville Chamberlain had signed the Munich Accord that promised “peace for our time.” He found framed portraits of Hitler heaped in the basement, along with booby-trap explosives that blew one workman to bits.  

Trucks constantly rumbled across the courtyard, bringing art found deep in Austrian salt mines. Smyth was joyous at the arrival of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Lady with an Ermine” and Jan van Eyck’s “Ghent Altarpiece,” among thousands of works the Nazis had intended to destroy to prevent their capture by the Allies at war’s end — but time suddenly ran out. Not every shipment was greeted with delight, however. One day a box arrived filled with gold teeth and children’s orthodontic braces, discovered at Dachau.

Recent years have brought heightened interest in the problem of looted art from the Holocaust era. Major museums, including Princeton’s, have reinvestigated their collections to be certain they do not contain stolen works. To assist in this global effort, the National Gallery’s Yeide has assembled a catalog of the collection of top Nazi Hermann Goering. His nefarious trove included 2,000 paintings, Yeide has proven — not 1,300 as previously thought. She could not have completed her work without the diligent records of Smyth and his Munich collecting point. “They did a fantastic job, a monumental job,” she says, “especially if you think about the situation they were dealing with” amid the devastation of a bombed-out city. Smyth’s distinguished career was only beginning: In later years he served as director of the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University.  

MFAA in Italy was headed by another Tiger, Lt. Col. Ernest DeWald *14 *16. Genteel and effortlessly polylingual, he had attended Rutgers before coming to Princeton for his Ph.D. After service in World War I he considered a career as a singer, but Dean Andrew Fleming West 1874 convinced him to enter academia instead, so he joined the Department of Art and Archaeology in 1925. Starting in 1943, he worked with MFAA in North Africa, identifying what ought to be preserved in the coming invasion of Italy. Then he moved north with the conquering armies through Sicily and the Italian mainland, overseeing emergency repairs to damaged buildings and finding museum art hidden in the countryside. Ready with expert assistance was his Princeton departmental colleague Charles Rufus Morey, founder of the Princeton-based Index of Christian Art (now the world’s largest archive of medieval art), who was serving as a cultural attaché in Rome.  

DeWald’s pocket diary, little-noticed today in Firestone Library, records the excitement and danger of these tumultuous times. Air-raid sirens howled as he reconnoitered medieval towns for endangered art. DeWald often came upon Army engineering units bulldozing fallen buildings out of roadways, using the debris to patch holes in blown-up bridges — until he frantically waved them to stop, pointing out fragments of historic sculpture, fresco, and manuscripts mingled with the rubble. “It’s amazing what Italian experts can piece together from what appears to be just a pile of smashed rock,” he told PAW in a wartime letter.  

DeWald decried needless Allied bombing, including an attack on the ruins of Pompeii. But American transgressions paled beside the destructiveness of the Wehrmacht, he repeatedly said. He was horrified by their dynamiting of venerable campanile towers and thousands of bridges, all across Italy. As curators watched helplessly, they had poured benzene and sulfur on the historic state archives of Naples and lit a match. He blamed them too for the burning of the huge Roman ships recently excavated from the bed of Lake Nemi, south of Rome. Of these priceless nautical remains that Mussolini had drained the lake in order to salvage, nothing was left now but heaps of blackened nails. The Germans also had wreaked havoc on the elegant Palazzo Ruspoli nearby, where, DeWald told his diary, “every stick of furniture remaining was hacked to pieces and the pictures slashed to ribbons.”

DeWald was proud of his record in tracking down lost art, including Titian’s “Danae” and Pieter Bruegel’s “Blind Leading the Blind,” both filched from storage at Monte Cassino abbey (later pounded to dust by American bombs) as gifts for Goering and eventually found in the bowels of the Austrian salt mines. To forestall looting and vandalism by Allied troops, DeWald wrote the Soldier’s Guide to Rome, which fresh-faced GIs carried through the Forum as they gawked at historic ruins. Subsequently, he was transferred to Austria, where he helped sort out Hitler’s artwork, working with yet another Princeton-trained expert — S. Lane Faison *32 of the OSS Art Looting Investigation Unit. Later a legendary professor at Williams, the pistol-carrying Faison interrogated shady dealers who had rounded up art for the Führer. Some swallowed cyanide rather than be questioned by this mild-mannered academic.

Back at his desk in McCormick Hall, DeWald wrote the introduction for the 1946 book Lost Treasures of Europe, a photographic catalog of the continent-wide destruction wrought by six years of pillaging and bombs. “The loss or destruction of these prized heritages of the past becomes in fact a personal loss comparable to that of a friend,” he said mournfully. Appointed as director of the Princeton University Art Museum in 1947, he bought an ancient sculpture of a goat’s head — “Princeton Billy,” the students called it — that turned out, ironically, to have been snitched from a collection in Rome during the war. DeWald promptly returned it, though Italy soon gave it to Princeton as a gesture of friendship.  

After his service with the Monuments Men, Patrick “Joe” Kelleher *47 served as director of the Princeton University Art Museum from 1960 to 1972. Photo courtesy of the Princeton University Art Museum; Naomi Savage, American, 1927–2005; “Patrick J. Kelleher” 1975; Gift of Naomi Savage; © 1975, Naomi Savage; Photo: Bruce M. White

After his service with the Monuments Men, Patrick “Joe” Kelleher *47 served as director of the Princeton University Art Museum from 1960 to 1972.

In 1950, the Austrian government honored his personal contributions to MFAA in their country by briefly exhibiting Vermeer’s “The Art of Painting” at the Art Museum.   Perhaps the greatest of the 34 works surviving by that legendary Dutch artist, it had been purchased by Hitler himself with proceeds from Mein Kampf. Rescued by American troops from the salt mines at Altaussee, Austria, it ultimately was repatriated to the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna — not to the aristocrat who had sold it to Hitler, Jaromir Czernin, who complained bitterly. Today, Czernin’s descendants are demanding to have the painting back, saying that he only parted with it under threat. The Austrian government hopes to avoid giving up its beloved Vermeer, which may now be worth a quarter-billion dollars. It is still smarting from the loss of five Gustav Klimt paintings in 2006: Stolen by the Nazis from a Jewish family and displayed in a Vienna museum for decades, they finally were repatriated by court order to a California woman after lawyer E. Randol Schoenberg ’88 successfully pleaded her case.

Many MFAA men — Princetonians and others — later became museum directors, including Charles Parkhurst, who headed the Baltimore Museum of Art. Joe Kelleher replaced DeWald as director of the Princeton Art Museum (his esteemed predecessor later dropped dead from a heart attack in Palmer Stadium parking lot at the 1968 Columbia game). Working with Barr and other experts, Kelleher selected the artists for the Putnam Collection of modernist sculpture scattered across campus and wrote the guidebook Living With Modern Sculpture.  

Today, the World War II generation is fast exiting the scene, with nearly 6,000 U.S. veterans dying every week. The loss of Faison and Smyth in 2006 and Parkhurst in 2008 leaves just one living Princeton MFAA man, Robert Koch, now 90 and unable to be interviewed because of failing health. Many Tigers fondly recall Koch’s courses on Northern Renaissance art, which he taught for 42 years. Koch grew up in academe as the son of drama professor Frederick Koch of the University of North Carolina, whose Carolina Playmakers pioneered the American “folk play” and whose star student was Thomas Wolfe. The younger Koch earned a master’s degree at the University of North Carolina before enlisting in 1942. Years later in conversations with undergraduates, he sometimes mentioned, in his modest Southern way, his MFAA service and how those unspeakable Nazis had intended to blow up the salt mines, incinerating the “Ghent Altarpiece” and so much else.

But now, two decades after he retired, his stories largely have been forgotten. Current Princeton faculty recall almost nothing about his wartime service — “I didn’t really know Bob Koch and certainly never heard him mention that subject,” says one professor who passed him in the hall daily for several years. “He talked a lot about retrieving stuff from the salt mines outside Salzburg, I think,” a former student says with the vagueness typical of all who were asked. “That’s disheartening, but it doesn’t surprise me,” says Robert Edsel of the Monuments Men Foundation. He has interviewed the few remaining veterans of MFAA — just nine of the 350 survive — and he travels the country giving talks about their unsung achievements, which the soldiers were usually too humble to brag about themselves.   “Sometimes their own families didn’t know what they had done,” says Yeide.  

The general amnesia about Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives seems unfortunate, especially among art historians, whose livelihood comes from studying and interpreting the works their predecessors bravely rescued (two Monuments Men were killed in combat). We all owe them a great debt, Edsel believes — “for saving these great cultural treasures that people now travel the world to go see” and then for coming home and helping America go from “cultural backwater to cultural epicenter” in the 1950s. That trajectory continues today, when the students of MFAA men occupy key positions in scores of museums and universities nationwide. In 1945, amid widespread destruction and horror, a few khaki-clad lovers of art lit a small flame of humanity amid the ashes by helping to safeguard great masterpieces. That’s a proud legacy well worth recalling. 

W. Barksdale Maynard ’88 wrote his senior thesis under MFAA veteran Robert Koch *54 and subsequently taught art history at Delaware, Johns Hopkins, and Princeton.

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May 25th, 2010 | 10:41 am

Robert and Diego Edsel. Photo courtesy of Robert M. Edsel Collection.

Today I’m utilizing space for a personal message, call it an author’s prerogative if you will.  17 years ago this handsome, loving and gifted boy was delivered into this world, our son, Diego.  He has been a source of pride for us as parents, and has brought joy to all those with whom he has come into contact.  Being around him makes anyone happier.

Robert and Diego Edsel. Photo courtesy of Robert M. Edsel Collection.

Diego is a musician, a gifted guitarist, and is entirely self-taught.  He can play it all, but at present heavy metal is his passion…Metallica is his role model.  And off to Zurich we go in a few weeks’ time to see Metallica, father and son.

Happy Birthday my son!



May 14th, 2010 | 11:15 am

Since its founding almost 3 years ago the Monuments Men Foundation has been working to encourage museums and collectors alike to comply with best practices guidelines. Simply stated, that means “know your collection” and where the objects were during the reign of the Nazis:  1933-1946.  Many museums, and some collectors, have embraced these guidelines. Some have been slow to catch up. A few continue to ignore the matter.

Belo’s Dallas station, WFAA, an ABC affiliate, broadcast a piece last evening highlighting a recent case we discovered several years ago at SMU’s Meadows Museum in conjunction with research on my first book, Rescuing Da Vinci.  Officials at the Meadows are now aggressively engaged conducting key provenance research on their collection as a whole and the two paintings covered by the story in particular, to their credit.

This case highlights one aspect of the work of the Foundation and the tangible results we continue to obtain while trying to work with important institutions like the Meadows Museum.

You can view the story by clicking on the following link:

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