Americans Flocked to See This Controversial Exhibit of Berlin’s Art Treasures in the Wake of World War II

Discovered in a salt mine in Nazi Germany, these artworks toured the United States in a questionable move that raised serious ethical concerns

A young boy talks to U.S. Army military police as the exhibit visited Toledo, Ohio. (Courtesy of the Toledo Museum of Art)
smithsonian.com

Ann Pflaum was just seven years old when her parents took her to a popular exhibition of European paintings at the Minneapolis Institute of Art in 1948. Decades later, her memory of the visit is still vivid. Biblical scenes by Rembrandt hung on the gallery walls, as did a golden-haired Botticelli “Venus,” and nearby a maiden with a pearl necklace looked out a sunlit window in a domestic scene painted by Vermeer. But these masterpieces, among many others, are not what remained with Pflaum. She remembers the accompanying documentary photographs of U.S. soldiers removing those very artworks from a German mine at the end of World War II, as well as the throngs of visitors. “It was pleasantly crowded,” Pflaum told Smithsonian.com. “It seemed like a fairly mixed audience, with different kinds of people.”

Pflaum was among 108,208 people who saw this blockbuster exhibition— titled Masterpieces from the Berlin Museums—during its short two-week run at the MIA, and millions of other Americans nationwide visited the show as it toured the country from 1948 until March of 1949. The term “blockbuster” was first coined during World War II to describe a two-ton bomb that could literally obliterate a city block, and it has since evolved to connote a category of smashingly successful megahits, spanning Hollywood films to museum shows. So it’s fitting that this, America’s first blockbuster art exhibition, was tied to the ravages of the Second World War and assembled by an unexpected curator: the U.S. Army.

Masterpieces from the Berlin Museums included a roster of nine Rembrandts, five Titians, two Vermeers, and works by Bellini, Botticelli, Rubens, Durer, Caravaggio, Manet, Rubens, and Tintoretto (among other art historical heavyweights). It was a hit as much because of the caliber of the paintings as the curious circumstances that brought them stateside.

Towards the end of the war, the U.S. Army unearthed artworks belonging to Berlin’s major museums from a German salt mine (where the Nazis had stashed both them and the national gold reserve for protection from the Allied bombing of Berlin). Soldiers in General George Patton’s Third Army heard rumors that a significant cache of gold was buried in the Kaiserroda Works mine when they took the town of Merkers in April 1945. Upon entering the abandoned mine, they found 100 tons of Reichsbank gold as well as the paintings, 2100 feet underground. The recuperated artworks were then transferred to a collection point in Wiesbaden administered by the Monuments Men, a special U.S. Army corps tasked with restituting art treasures that were looted by the Nazis or otherwise moved during the war.

But a few months later, President Truman received intelligence that storage conditions at Wiesbaden were subpar. Colonel Harry A. McBride, a top military representative sent from Washington (and an administrator at Washington D.C.’s National Gallery of Art), visited the Weisbaden Collecting Point in November and found fault with the facilities. Among other things, McBride criticized the damp Army blankets that hung from doorways – a hack devised by the Monuments Men to add humidity necessary for preservation of the artworks. His plan was to bring a selection of 202 paintings from the collections of the Berlin’s Kaiser-Friedrich and National-Galerie Museums to the United States for safekeeping—without a deadline for their return.

To many Monuments Men, as well as American curators and art historians, Truman’s approval of McBride’s plan reeked of the kind of Nazi art-looting behavior that the U.S. Army had labored to rectify. “We are trying Germans as war criminals for what we are now ordered to do,” wrote Walter Farmer, the director of the Wiesbaden Central Collecting Point personally tasked with shipping the artworks to the United States, to his wife.

These artworks had long been prized highlights of the Kaiser-Friedrich, a German institution that first opened to the public in 1830. As described later in the catalogue for Masterpieces from the Berlin Museums, the paintings brought to the United States “may be said to represent the cream of one of the world’s great collections of the old masters.” To this day, many of the works included in that group of 202 paintings are featured paintings in Berlin’s Gemäldegalerie, the museum’s post-war iteration.

Torn between following orders and obeying his conscience, Farmer assembled 32 fellow Monuments Men to protest the transfer. They codified their sentiments in a document dubbed the Wiesbaden Manifesto, the only act of protest by Army officers against their orders during the entirety of the Second World War. “No historical grievance will rankle so long or be the cause of so much justified bitterness,” the manifesto declared, “as the removal for any reason of a part of the heritage of any nation even if that heritage may be interpreted as a prize of war.” Farmer and his colleagues believed that the works should have remained in Wiesbaden, before their eventual return to the Berlin museums.

Artwork gets offloaded on its way to the Minneapolis Institute of Art (Minnesota Historical Society)

Nonetheless, the paintings crossed the Atlantic and were stored at the National Gallery. “After an uneventful crossing, the ship [transporting the works] passed the Statue of Liberty at 5 p.m. on December 6 [1945],” McBride recalled in The National Geographic Magazine in 1948. “Though America was still a wilderness when many of them were painted, they were to discover here an amazingly art-conscious nation.”

The works languished in storage until 1948, when conditions in the American occupied zone of Berlin had improved and the paintings were set to return. But first, the State Department wanted to give the American public a chance to see them. The National Gallery prepared to exhibit them in March with little fanfare, as a selection of masterpieces from Germany titled Paintings from the Berlin Museums, but members of the press caught word and an outburst of coverage ensued. Some journalists had been following the story of these paintings since their initial transfer in 1945, and were attuned to the significance of this exhibition. More than 8,000 visitors flooded the museum on opening day and attendance swelled; by the end of its 40-day run, a record-setting 964,970 people had seen the exhibition.

Lines trailed outside the National Gallery in D.C., but other American museums were outraged. “We believe that it is unethical and undignified, to say the least, to use other people’s property without their assent,” a few directors of major New York museums—such as the Frick Collection, Whitney Museum, and Cooper Union Museum—jointly wrote to Truman. “[When] the objects are the art inheritance of another people, the implications of such a highhanded undertaking are distressing to contemplate.”

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Museum staff hang one of the artworks in the "European Masterpieces from Berlin Museums" exhibit at the Toledo Museum of Art. (Courtesy of the Toledo Museum of Art)

Congress ultimately found the popular appetite for this exhibition too hard to resist, though. Senator J. William Fulbright, an Arkansas Democrat, introduced a bill to extend custody of the paintings and launch them on tour. “There’s the competing desires to do the right thing in terms of international diplomacy and cultural patronage, there’s the desire to preserve the paintings, and then there’s also the public demand,” says Peter Bell, a Cincinnati Art Museum curator currently preparing an exhibition about Walter Farmer’s legacy and the 202 paintings, slated for summer 2020. “This is a collection that most Americans would never be able to see, and that’s when Congress got involved and legislated that they needed to go on this tour.”

Students from the Toledo area were bussed in for the exhibit. (Courtesy of the Toledo Museum of Art)
Toledo held a parade with local dignitaries when the exhibit came to their town. (Courtesy of the Toledo Museum of Art)
Students observing some of the masterpieces in the exhibit. (Courtesy of the Toledo Museum of Art)
The exhibit was one of the rare opportunities many Americans would have to see such artworks. (Courtesy of the Toledo Museum of Art)
Long lines awaited those outside the Toledo Museum of Art. (Courtesy of the Toledo Museum of Art)

Transported and guarded by the U.S. Army, the exhibition marched cross-country with military efficiency; within a year the whistle-stop tour visited 14 museums in as many cities, traveled 12,000 miles, attracted roughly 7 million visitors and raised $190,000 in admission fees (all donated to the German Children’s Relief Fund). Masterpieces from the Berlin Museums traveled to New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Minneapolis, Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, and Toledo. “From today’s perspective, the logistics are just mind-boggling,” Bell adds.

The unorthodox exhibition was a sensation wherever it disembarked. Publicity posters hung in department stores, shops, hotels, and train stations. At the time of the show’s 17-day run in Detroit, the window display at Himelhoch’s Department Store contained chic mannequins admiring Rembrandt prints. The signage advertised: “Inspired by the great Dutch master’s painting in the Masterpieces from the Berlin Museums now being shown at the Detroit Institute of Arts.” The Detroit museum’s annual report that year noted that the show was “the most successful exhibition ever presented to Detroiters.”

In Minneapolis, Ann Pflaum’s father was likely drawn to attend the exhibition by his wartime navy service. “For a nation still reeling from the war, [the exhibition] was patriotic proof that it was worth it: Civilization had been saved,” notes former Minneapolis Institute of Arts curator, Nicole Chamberlain-Dupree. Pflaum remembers the feeling of pride, among her family and other visitors, of American veterans having taken a part in rescuing collective cultural heritage.

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VIP passes to the exhibit when it was in Minneapolis (Courtesy of the Minneapolis Institute of Art)

And in Toledo, the tour’s last stop, a convoy led the paintings to the museum with much ballyhoo. “They had a parade from the train station through downtown Toledo, that then wound up at the museum,” says Julie McMaster, Toledo Museum of Art archivist. “It had all the dignitaries from the area, a limousine with the mayor. They made quite a spectacle of it coming.”

Exhibitions of seized artwork are not unusual, but generally they propagandize the victor’s ownership of the spoils. “The exhibition tour of the 202, though, took place as the attempt to show Americans, and Germans as well, that the U.S. did not seize the artworks but kept them only for safekeeping,” notes Tanja Bernsau, a German art historian specializing in the Wiesbaden Central Collecting Point—the American government meant “to demonstrate that they valued them as German belongings and were willing to return them if the conditions were suitable.” The Kaiser-Friedrich Museum was significantly damaged during the war, and restoration of its building didn’t begin until 1948.

The tour concluded by spring of 1949 and all 202 paintings returned to Germany, where many now grace the walls of Berlin’s Gemäldegalerie. Given the more pressing issues of inadequate housing and food shortages in the postwar years, the Rembrandts and Vermeers were received with little fanfare when they returned home.

Back in the United States, the unabashed success of Masterpieces from the Berlin Museums remains a hard act to follow both in terms of attendance numbers and political complexity. “It’s a milestone, it’s sort of a phenomenon,” says Bell. “When we say ‘blockbuster exhibition’ that’s sort of a genre now. But there’s nothing that has followed this in terms of any of the aspects of the story, really.”

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